Author Topic: The horrors of biomedican research - chimpanzees 08.04.2012  (Read 782 times)

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The horrors of biomedican research - chimpanzees 08.04.2012
« Reply #1 on: April 15, 2012, 05:42:42 PM »
For the past 50 years, these chimps have been used for research. Now many are saying they deserve to be spared.

They've been fired into space, used in crash tests, injected with mind-altering drugs and shot with handguns to test wound damage. They have all been exposed to HIV and Hepatitis C. There's growing sentiment in New Mexico that the 176 surviving chimpanzees known as the Alamogordo colony deserve a break.

The colony's origins go back to the wilds of West Africa, where they were rounded up in the 1950s.

They were brought to America to work on space-race programs at the Holloman Airforce Base near the town of Alamogordo, in the New Mexico desert.

The original colony has passed on but their descendants, whose life stories can be told in gruesome medical records, are a remarkable group that have survived the worst humans could throw at them in the name of science.

Most of them know how to cooperatively offer their arm for a blood test. Some are geriatric, some are amputees. All are considered chronically ill.

The chimps, which live in an off-limits compound in Holloman base, have a growing group of friends who are desperate to prevent the US Government from allowing them to be put through further invasive biomedical testing.

The colony has not been used in invasive tests since 2001, when they were removed from a private foundation that had been cited for numerous cruelty violations. But they have been deemed a "reserve colony", which could be put back into lab work at any time.

Last year, New Mexican politicians from both sides of the fence made a major step to intervene on the colony's behalf. They ordered the National Institute of Health, which has responsibility for the 1000 or so chimpanzees in US laboratories, to conduct a study into the necessity of using chimps for medical or behavioural research.

The NIH gave the inquiry to a high-level panel from the Institute of Medicine. It was widely expected the committee would find in favour of the labs and deem the chimps essential to learning more about human health.

But the committee, made up of virologists, physiologists, bioethicists and veterinarians, surprised many. It concluded that decades of chimpanzee research had done little to advance human health and said special dispensation needed to given to our closest animal relatives.

Only on the question of hepatitis study did the report waver. It could not reach agreement on whether chimps would continue to be needed for invasive research to develop the Holy Grail of a Hep C vaccine, and left that door slightly ajar.

While chimpanzees are closest to humans in DNA, they are sufficiently different to have confounded the scientists using them for medical breakthroughs. What this means for the oldest of the Alamogordo residents, a breeding chimp named Flo, aged 54, is that she has given much of herself for little return to humanity. Flo's medical records run to 800 pages and make for distressing reading. She has been anaesthetised with dart guns and bled hundreds of times; she has mothered eight or nine babies to different fathers, all of whom were taken from her; exposed to infectious diseases and liver biopsies; and shot after making an escape attempt. Not surprisingly, she has a bad heart.

The colony was originally used to test a human's ability to withstand space travel. The chimps, blasted all over the New Mexico desert, learned to respond to commands with electric shocks. After showing researchers that space was survivable, the chimps lost their usefulness.

They entered medical laboratories where they were subjected to a vast array of trials, from being dosed with hallucinogens to being cut up for cardiac surgery experiments.

New Mexican bioethicist Dr John Gluck first encountered the Alamogordo colony in the early 1970s. At the time he was excited to visit a chimp facility as these animals were seen as the ultimate in cross-species experimentation. He'd gone for a job at New York's Rikers prison after leaving school and what he saw in Holloman was no different. The chimps were so dangerous that it was necessary to walk a straight line between long rows of small cages to stay out of their reach.

"You'd walk down a hallway, and you had to stay right in the middle to avoid being hit by faeces or urine or being spat at, and they were good at all those things. There was very little room for mistake in terms of security locks and handling. It was common to see technicians with fingers missing."

Most of the chimps struck Dr Gluck as being mentally ill. "They looked physically robust but they didn't look well, they looked peculiar," he says. Dr Gluck would over time reassess the value of his own research with rhesus monkeys and begin to look at it from the animal's perspective.

"Eventually, slowly, I began to appreciate the predicament," he says. "It was pretty bad."

But this would not, at the time, assist the Alamogordo colony. In the 1980s, with the new plagues of HIV and Hepatitis C demanding urgent answers, the NIH leased some of its chimps to a private contractor, Frederick Coulston, who ran a biomedical testing facilities at Alamogordo and the Holloman base.

Coulston attempted to build up America's biggest chimp colony in his quest to make breakthroughs on HIV and Hep C.

But as is now known, chimpanzees can be given the HIV virus but it will not develop into deadly AIDS. Likewise, they may carry Hep C, but unlike humans will not develop diseases such as liver cancer.

Coulston did not repay his chimps with kindness and whistleblowers told terrible tales of the suffering of the chimpanzees. There were at least 48 "unintended" chimp deaths in his care, including three who overheated to death and four who died from lack of water. Such was the clamour about his neglect and cruelty that in 2001 the NIH ceased funding Coulston's laboratories. Some of the chimps were donated to a home in Florida while the others, now subject to a breeding moratorium, have remained at Holloman.

 Vet Dr Paul Langner says there was an idea the Alamogordo chimps, with all their medical issues, would just fade away fast and the problem of what to do with them would end. But chimps can live to 60.

"They expected them to die off," says Dr Langner. "But we had the best survival rate of any of the government colonies, even though we had the most diseased and oldest animals."

Because of their infected status, they cannot be housed with other colonies and are considered unsafe for public zoos.

They are now in improved cages and Laura Bonar, the program director of Animal Protection of New Mexico, believes the chimps have adequate care at Holloman.

Ms Bonar, drawing on the support of Dr Gluck and others, has won bipartisan political and public support for the idea that the chimps should be allowed to live out their lives comfortably at the Holloman facility, with no further biomedical testing.

But she is concerned about the chimps' reserve status, which could send them back to the operating tables for Hep C work, if the NIH deemed it necessary.

"These chimps are the survivors," she says. "There are many horrible death stories. There has been a lot of suffering and trauma and we can't take it back. They used to use them for crash tests for seat belts.

They were shot. People hated working there.

"A lot have disorders - obsessive compulsive disorders such as rocking, not being able to walk on grass for fear of being away from concrete. A lot of them have multiple chronic health issues, kidney problems, heart problems, different types of murmurs and hypertensions and problems that are a result of their use in research."

 Logic and compassion would suggest Ms Bonar, Dr Gluck and others fighting for Alamogordo chimps will win this battle.

 Australia's National Health and Medical Research Council views great apes, including gorillas, orangutans, chimpanzees and bonobos, as "closely related to humans in evolution" and deserving of special care. Any testing must "potentially benefit the individual animal and the species to which the animal belongs".