Federal agency seeks to return chimps to painful research

McClatchy Newspapers


During Lennie’s life under the microscope, science changed.

Starting in the 1960s, Lennie, a chimpanzee, was strapped in a spacesuit for U.S. government test flights and subjected to spinal taps. He was fed a banana laced with triparanol, a drug already removed from the market for humans. In the 1970s, he was a breeder, used to increase the supply of lab chimps. In the 1980s and 1990s, he was infected with the HIV and hepatitis viruses and subjected time and again to blood draws and biopsies.

In 2002, Lennie died at a federal primate facility in the New Mexico desert, where many of his former cage-mates still live.

Today, those former cage-mates — about 180 of them — are at the center of an impassioned debate between the National Institutes of Health and the animal-rights community. The chimps at the Alamogordo Primate Facility have been withheld from research the past 10 years as part of an agreement between the NIH and the Air Force base where the facility is located. Now the NIH wants to move the chimps away from Alamogordo, where they’ll be allowed to be put back into research. Animal-rights activists want them retired to a grassy sanctuary.

Even before Lennie’s death from apparent heart disease, though, science was moving away from the kind of research that dominated much of his life.

Researchers say advances in laboratory techniques mean that knowledge once gained only by examining a live animal now can be learned in a petri dish. And an expanding body of evidence shows that chimps don’t work as the human fill-in that researchers once hoped they would.

The ethics of animal research also has evolved. What once was commonplace is now controversial, and there’s a growing feeling that chimps should be spared the pain and mental anguish of research.

Some see it differently. Calling chimps crucial to advancing hepatitis-C research, the NIH wants to ship them from the facility in New Mexico to the Texas Biomedical Research Institute in San Antonio. The director of the Texas institute’s primate facility called chimps “a wonderful model” for certain research.

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