The privacy of pharmaceuticals, biotechs, and other private research
While most research into the causes and treatments of diseases is funded by the federal government, research focused on the development of drugs and medical devices is often funded by private pharmaceutical and biotech corporations.
While it is difficult to acquire information about the ways in which animals are used in publicly-funded research, it is nearly impossible to learn much about how they are used in privately-funded research.
However, it is known that chimpanzees have been used extensively in the past by the pharmaceutical and biotech industries to test drugs, chemicals, and medical devices. Although information on private research is closely guarded, evidence indicates it continues. For example, the National Center for Research Resources (NCRR) website states that New Iberia Research Center’s (NIRC) current research on chimpanzees involves, “Vaccine development and testing; pharmacokinetic, pharmacodynamic, preclinical safety, and efficacy studies.” NIRC is one of several federally funded facilities currently leasing out its chimpanzees for private research use.
During his testimony to Congress in 2000, John Strandberg, Director of Comparative Medicine at NIH, noted:
There are approximately 1,600 [as of 2000; as of 2009 there are approximately 1000 left] chimpanzees in this country that have participated in biomedical research. However, not all these chimpanzees fall under the purview of the Public Health Service as some have participated in research conducted in the private sector, principally by the pharmaceutical industry. (1)
In the National Research Council’s 1997 report, Chimpanzees in Research: Strategies for Their Ethical Care, Management, and Use, the council projected that the use of chimpanzees in toxicological research would continue:
There will probably be a requirement for a substantial number of chimpanzees in pivotal studies of novel xenobiotics [chemical substances that are foreign to the body] that have potential therapeutic benefit to humans. Of particular importance are studies to define mechanisms of action or efficacy when sensitivity of the molecular target of a novel agent is similar in chimpanzees and humans but different in other species. Pharmacokinetics of drugs are known to vary greatly across species, but in this respect chimpanzees and humans are similar most of the time. (2)
This claim—that genetically related species exhibit similar responses to drugs—is often made by researchers using animals but is not supported by scientific evidence.
For example, wide discrepancies in drug responses have frequently been observed even between rats and mice, two very closely related species commonly used for toxicity tests.
Dr. John Caldwell, Professor of Biochemical Toxicology and Head of Biomedical Sciences Division at the Imperial College School of Medicine in London stated:
It has been obvious for some time that there is generally no evolutionary basis behind the particular-metabolizing ability of a particular species. Indeed, among rodents and primates, zoologically closely related species exhibit markedly different patterns of metabolism. (3)
Dr. Caldwell’s statement is supported by the fact that 70 percent of drugs that have tested safe in nonhuman primates are known to be harmful to the human fetus. (4) Testing drugs on chimpanzees and other nonhuman primates offer little, inconsistent, or no guarantee of safety for human use.
In January 2009, the HSUS sent a survey letter to 404 private research facilities in the U.S. that conduct animal research and asked if they currently use chimpanzees in invasive research. Only 22% responded to the letter; of those 90 companies, all indicated “that they do not use or fund the use of chimpanzees for invasive research.” (5) However, with such a small response rate, little can be gleaned from the survey as to the realities of chimpanzee use in private research.
(1) Testimony on Biomedical Research and Chimpanzees by John Strandberg, DVM, PhD, National Center for Research Resources, National Institutes of Health, Before the House Committee on Commerce, Subcommittee on Health and Environment, May 18, 2000. http://www.hhs.gov/asl/testify/t000518a.html
(2) National Resource Council (NRC), Institute for Laboratory Animal Research (1997). Chimpanzees in Research: Strategies for Their Ethical Care, Management, and Use, Chapter 2. Washington, DC, USA: National Academy Press.
(3) Caldwell, J. 1992. Species differences in metabolism and their toxicological significance. Toxicology Letters, 65 (5):106.
(4) McLachlan JA, RM Pratt, CL Markert (Eds). 1987. Developmental Toxicology: Mechanisms and Risk, p 313.
(5) “Biotech Firms Urged to Halt Use of Chimpanzees in Invasive Research,” HSUS. Jan. 26, 2009.