With genome maps adding new appreciation of the very closerelationship between humans and the great apes, scientists at theUniversity of California, San Diego have proposed a series of ethicaland scientific guidelines for the expected increase in research onthese, our closest evolutionary cousins.
The newestgenome-mapping has shown that human beings and chimpanzees share morethan 99 percent sequence identity in genes and proteins, while havingaccumulated more differences in the rest of their DNA. Indeed, thegreat apes – chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas and orangutans – are nowgrouped with humans in the family Hominidae. Their close kinship to usmakes them interesting to scientists, and research institutions,sanctuaries, zoos, private owners and the entertainment industrytogether house more than 2,000 great apes, most of them West Africanchimpanzees.
The UCSD scientists want to make sure that thebiomedical community recognizes the great apes’ unique status asnear-kin. “We have special ethical responsibilities towards captivegreat apes,” they say in the Sept. 1 issue of the journal Nature, in anarticle accompanying the formal publication of the chimpanzee genome.“They share traits -- including but not limited to, their geneticsimilarity to humans, the ability to use and modify tools and a senseof ‘self’ -- that justify this special status.”
Pascal Gagneux,James J. Moore and Ajit Varki of UCSD argue in Nature that “the studyof great apes should follow ethical principles generally similar tothose for current studies on human subjects who cannot give informedconsent,” and they acknowledge the many grey areas that still perplexresearchers.
Is it acceptable, for example, to do “reversibleharm,” such as causing a mild, treatable infection, or to sedate achimpanzee (as you might a child) so as to allow therapeuticprocedures? Such issues, they say, “deserve much further dialog amongall concerned.”
Some areas aren’t grey for the scientists:Alternatives to potentially harmful forms of research on livingchimpanzees should be found as soon as possible; genomic data shouldnever be used to produce “transgenic” apes (as is routinely done withmice); and all biomedical studies on great apes should be carried outin ways that support further improvements to their care.
Notingthat both a National Research Council Commission report and a recentFederal Register Notice reemphasize researchers’ obligation to providethe “best and most humane care possible” for apes under study, the UCSDscientists argue that “the time has come to establish broadly acceptedguidelines for systematic, humane and ethical studies of captivegreat-ape populations that also contribute to the well-being of theapes themselves. These studies should be carried out at all levels,from genetics to biochemistry to physiology to behavior and culture.”
Gagneux,a scientist in cellular and molecular medicine who also doesendangered-species research for the Zoological Society of San Diego;Moore, a professor of anthropology; and Varki, a professor of bothmedicine and cellular and molecular medicine, make it very clear thattheir proposal applies only to the great apes, “and not to otherprimates, nor other animals.”
And, they assert, their concern is“not about animal ‘rights’ but about ethical and scientific challengesspecific to great apes in captivity.”
The scientists recommendseveral practices and policies for research to protect the great apes,even while making fuller use of their contributions to biomedicaldiscoveries:
* Account for each great ape with a name and aunique identifier, and collect complete medical records in astandardized way, using searchable databases, while maintaining theprivacy of researchers and institutions.
* When a captive ape diesof natural causes, or is humanely euthanized to end incurablesuffering, conduct a thorough autopsy and organ-sample collection forgenetic, transcriptomic, proteomic, biochemical and histologicalstudies.
* Preserve and analyze the musculoskeletal system, as wellas body fluid and tissue samples, “to maximize the information weobtain from them, rather than treating them as single-use, disposabletools.”
* Build on the NIH’s Chimpanzee Management Program and suchsanctuaries as Chimp Haven to establish a collaborative network offacilities involving all interested scientists. “Already,” they note,“leaders from institutions in the U.S. holding most of the chimpanzeeshave established the National Chimpanzee Resource Committee, whichmeets regularly to discuss issues of mutual interest. The increasedcost of supporting all such facilities will be more than justified bythe knowledge gleaned from the study of healthy, socially integratedgreat apes – and can potentially contribute to the ultimate survival ofsome of these species.
* Use such a national network to help trainand support scientists interested in the “standardized accumulation ofall relevant biological data.”
* Have all newly proposed researchstudies on great apes approved by specialized ethical oversight groupsadvised by the new national network, incorporating aspects of human-and animal-subjects committees currently active at most institutions.
“Weurge all scientists studying great apes,” say the authors, “tocontribute not only to the care of captive apes, but also to developmechanisms by which studies of captive great apes would help generate arevenue stream to enhance support for the conservation of great apepopulations in the wild.”
The UCSD scientists know that theirproposal is just the beginning of a potentially contentious process,“unlikely to please everyone currently interested in the great apes,”but hope that the resulting dialog in the research community will helpdevelop a mutually acceptable solution for all concerned, including thegreat apes.
“We will undoubtedly be accused of trying to stand onthe proverbial slippery slope,” said Varki. “However, depending onone’s perspective, this particular slope can incline in eitherdirection. Thus, this is exactly where we wish to be on this difficultethical issue.”
Meanwhile, they note, there is a deep irony inthe fact that the sequencing of the chimpanzee genome coincides withthe potential demise of great apes in the wild.
“Research oncaptive great apes will provide precious new knowledge,” said Gagneux.“The future survival of these endangered species, however, will dependon conservation efforts in their natural habitats of Africa and Asia.”
Thework of Gagneux, Moore, Varki and members of the UCSD Project forExplaining the Origin of Humans is funded by the G. Harold and Leila Y.Mathers Charitable Foundation.
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