Wednesday 24 June 2015

Research chimpanzees receive endangered status

The news that the US Fish and Wildlife Services have now listed research chimpanzees as an endangered species is a mixed bag for me as a research scientist that has in the past had to deal with research animals. Truthfully, I feel this decision is not the best decision with respect to biomedical research, while on the other hand I realize that the cognitive (almost human) abilities of chimpanzees makes this a difficult issue to accept for most people.

Chimpanzees truly are beautiful animals in fact they exhibit remarkable traits of their homo-sapiens cousins which makes us desire to give them human like status. These human like traits are evident in the way the live in groups with the mothers caring for their young and the alpha male caring for the group. We also see their dark side in the the way that one group will hunt other groups of chimpanzees or in the way the group will oust an alpha male when they deem he is no longer strong enough to lead. They truly behave like humans in many ways, displaying morality principles based on their social structure while passing down learned knowledge of tool use.

On the other hand, chimps are vital in some research fields as they are the closet relative to humans on which certain medicines can be tested. While this may bother people, the only other option is to test on humans, yet I am sure there would be just as much outcry if that was the decision. Please realize when I am talking about testing medicines I am talking about drugs that we have no idea of how they will react physiologically. Those drugs that need to be tested to make sure they are safe before we start clinical trails on humans, its the last gasp effort to ensure safety of human test subjects. Just think of vaccines and the negative effects that could happen if not tested properly. Let me add here, that even if tested on chimps or other primates, there is still a chance that a first stage human drug trial could go horribly wrong. Lest we forget the drug Thalidomide that resulted in serious birth defects, although these defects were related more to poor medical practices of the time.

Lastly, we should consider a recent interview with a scientists that works with chimps everyday. She is adamant that the chimps are more looked after than they could ever be, and that the environment is ideal for testing. In fact, it is believed that in the wild these tests can never give the results they get when the tests are done in a controlled research chimp environment. I found this comment from the interview an ideal way to end this post on what I consider a bad idea in biomedical research, "I find a lot of what the other side is saying very untrue and hurtful. It's upsetting when someone calls you an evil scientist, or when they say we're causing pain or needless suffering. It's strange to hear people talking about these animals when they don't know who they are."