Retired Lab Chimps Pressed Back Into Service
If scientists ever develop a vaccine for hepatitis from research done on chimpanzees, some of them will say the human race owes a debt of gratitude to chimps like Ken.
Currently housed in a San Antonio research facility, Ken was born on a New Mexico Air Force base in 1982. He was immediately taken from his mother, and his blood was drawn for the first time when he was about 12 hours old. Over the next three years, he was studied at Centers for Disease Control labs in Phoenix and Atlanta. He was infected with hepatitis C from a serum derived from infected chimps and with hepatitis A from human feces. He was infected with HIV in 1993.
Ken was retired from medical research in 1996 after undergoing a total of 77 anesthetizations for serial blood sampling and biopsies. In retirement, he remained at the Air Force base in what is known as the Alamogordo Primate Facility. During a routine health exam on Ken in 2005, vets discovered a protein deficiency in his blood that they believe later led to his swollen scrotum and abdomen.
In June of 2010, after 14 years of retirement, Ken and more than 200 other retired peers were scheduled to be transferred to San Antonio's Southwest National Primate Research Center for a renewed career as lab chimps.
University of Houston Cougars Football vs. UCF Knights Football
TicketsSat., Oct. 29, 11:00am
Rice University Owls Football vs. Florida Atlantic University Owls Football
TicketsSat., Nov. 5, 2:30pm
University of Houston Cougars Football vs. Tulane University Football
TicketsSat., Nov. 12, 11:00am
University of Houston Cougars Football vs. Louisville Cardinals College Football
TicketsThu., Nov. 17, 7:00pm
The decision to transfer the chimps and take them out of retirement provoked enough of an outrage by animal-welfare groups that the National Institutes of Health tasked a group called the Institute of Medicine with investigating the necessity of continued testing on 612 NIH-owned chimpanzees.
By the time the institute convened to examine the issue, Ken and 13 other Alamogordo chimps had been transferred. Ultimately, the National Institutes of Health suspended the transfer of 186 chimps, who remain at the Alamogordo facility today.
Although they account for a minuscule number of nonhuman primates used in biomedical research — only 53 of 94,000 NIH-funded projects involve chimps — chimpanzees tend to strike an especially emotional chord in humans.
But the Institute of Medicine's job was to assess the chimp's scientific, not emotional, value, and in December 2011, the organization determined that "most current use of chimpanzees for biomedical research is unnecessary."
That finding, as well as the introduction of a bipartisan bill that would phase out all invasive research on federally owned chimps, has generated increased scrutiny of the type of work done at Southwest.
Researchers at Southwest will tell you that, no matter what, the taxpayer-funded work they do with primates is vital. It could very well yield successful treatments for hepatitis and a host of other diseases, like AIDS.
You might soon be hearing more about Southwest's promising work in that field, since the facility is hosting the 30th annual symposium on primates used in AIDS research later this month.
You will be told that work done with primates from Southwest is vital because as a taxpayer, not only are you funding the studies, you are co-funding Southwest's public-relations initiatives. You're also covering part of the cost of organizing, planning and publicizing the AIDS symposium.
But if you question the nature or efficacy of the work you are paying for, there's a good chance the higher-ups at Southwest will label you a zealot who cares more for knuckle-dragging apes than for hundreds of millions of sick and dying people.
Your money is good — but your questions aren't.
In August 2006, veterinarians at Southwest performed a necropsy on a male baboon who they didn't realize wasn't dead.
It appears to have been an honest mistake: According to a United States Department of Agriculture inspection report, the minimum dosage of euthanasia solution required to put down a baboon of that weight was 5.7 milliliters, and that's exactly what the veterinarians gave him.
However, ten minutes into the tissue harvest, the pathologist detected a "faint femoral pulse," which probably threw everyone involved for a loop, not least of all the baboon. Fortunately for the baboon's sake, he'd been anesthetized with ketamine prior to the euthanasia solution, so things could have been worse.
Still, it's a violation of the Animal Welfare Act to perform a necropsy on an animal that's not quite dead, and the USDA inspector pointed out this "significant program deficiency."
Understandably, the doctors wanted to keep this embarrassing slip-up among themselves; the inspector noted the lack of records indicating that anyone had told Southwest's Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee, the board that oversees and evaluates work done on lab animals.
The penalty for this violation was a $6,094 fine.
In December 2011, the USDA fined Southwest for three violations rated as "serious" (the strongest in a three-tier rating system): one in which a juvenile rhesus monkey escaped its pen on a chilly November night and succumbed to the cold; another in which two baboons escaped their enclosure and injured an employee; and a third for failure to adequately secure the monkeys. The sum total: $25,714, payable by check, money order or credit card. That year, Southwest won a five-year, $19 million NIH contract for chimpanzee research alone.
Of course, for a facility with 3,200 primates, such things are bound to happen.
Southwest is a branch of the Texas Biomedical Research Institute, founded in 1941 and formerly known as the Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research. Southwest won a federal grant to establish a baboon colony, as well as a trapping station in Kenya, in 1958 and received its first baboon batch two years later.
In 1999, Southwest was designated as one of only eight national primate research centers and awarded a five-year, $27.9 million grant from the National Institutes of Health. Today Southwest boasts the largest baboon colony in the world and, in addition to baboons and chimps, has a sizable share of macaques, marmosets and tamarins.
Southwest counts among its accomplishments its role in developing treatments for pulmonary distress in premature babies, using premature baboons as a model. And Southwest researchers played a "critical role in developing the vaccine currently used to protect humans from the hepatitis B virus, using the chimpanzee model," according to its website. Research on the treatment of hepatitis C, done in conjunction with a Danish pharmaceutical company, led to a drug that is now in clinical trials with human subjects.
To scientist and Southwest director John VandeBerg, anyone who questions the use of primates in research is an extremist, and they're just freaking wrong. Which is why he wrote that "history proves animal extremists wrong" in a 2009 opinion piece for the San Antonio Express-News.
And it's not just that extremists are so completely and utterly wrong, VandeBerg pointed out; it's that their "distortions and propaganda" are "potentially more challenging than the disease burden itself."
Polio? You don't have it because of a bunch of rhesus monkeys, thank you very much. Hep A and B? Chimps. HPV? Yeah, that's right: monkeys.
He wrote that Southwest scientist Robert Lanford "recently reported promising results in chimpanzees with a drug using a new strategy to prevent the hepatitis C virus from replicating."
For all its prominence in the world of nonhuman primate models for research, Southwest doesn't get much attention outside San Antonio. But it was thrust into the national spotlight in 2011 after it was awarded the Alamogordo chimps. Suddenly, VandeBerg and Lanford were giving interviews to NBC's Rock Center and PBS's NewsHour.
Lanford came across as a scientist who has devoted his life to ending the scourge of hepatitis. VandeBerg came across as spookily dispassionate.
"I think of the chimpanzees in the same way that I think of a library," VandeBerg told Rock Center correspondent Lisa Myers. "There are many books in the library that will never be used this year or next year. Many of them might never be used again. But we don't know which ones will be needed tomorrow, next year or the year after." (It's possible that Southwest's communications department realized that VandeBerg, while an able procurer of federal grants, somehow appears less sentient than the rhesus macaques bouncing around the Southwest grounds: Citing media fatigue, Southwest's communications director said that everyone there was too "burned out" to comment for this story.)
And while VandeBerg warned in his opinion piece against so-called extremists, it appears that Southwest engaged in some of its own propaganda for the NBC story. Chimps have to be sedated and immobilized for even simple procedures like drawing blood, and the NBC cameras showed chimps willingly presenting their arms to veterinarians who injected them with sedatives. Quick, clean, no fuss. Myers reported that, according to Lanford, 75 percent of the chimps had been trained to do this. Yet Southwest's 2010 National Institutes of Health grant application for the research on and maintenance of the Alamogordo chimps states the opposite: "About one-third of the animals will present an arm or leg for injection, but the rest must be darted with a Telinject gun."
The grant application also indicates that the chimps are more than just library books; they're a much-needed revenue stream. Obtained by Laura Bonar of Animal Protection of New Mexico, the application states that the per diem costs the facility would receive would "balance the SNPRC budget, which is currently well in the red."
Southwest would get paid for each chimp, whether they're used for research or not. The application states that chimps would be assessed and labeled as healthy enough for general use, adequate for limited use or no longer suitable for use. The Alamogordo chimps currently at Southwest have all been labeled Category 1 — healthy enough for general use.
Here's an example of a Category 1: Katrina, a 30-year-old chimp, did most of her time in a private lab in Tuxedo, New York. She has been sedated or anesthetized at least 295 times, endured 36 liver biopsies, four rectal biopsies, three lymph node biopsies and a cervical biopsy. In 1994, after coming out of a ketamine daze, she mutilated her thumb. Between June 2001 and March 2002 (when she was retired), she lost 38.5 pounds — one-third of her body weight.
As a taxpayer, you will be paying for Katrina's renewed use at Southwest. You also will be paying, or have already paid, for the production of two-minute videos on Southwest's Web site that promote the use of chimpanzee testing; for search-engine optimization that will place the Web site among the top results for "chimpanzee and research" queries; and for tours for high-school students.
The per diem charge per chimp would be adjusted, according to the application, after every 20 deaths.
In September, the National Institutes of Health announced its intention to transfer 100 chimpanzees currently at the New Iberia Research Center in Louisiana to Southwest. All of the chimps have been made "permanently ineligible for biomedical research," according to an NIH spokesperson.
Southwest was chosen because of its ability "to provide continued high-quality care for the chimpanzees," the spokesperson stated in an e-mail.
When we asked the spokesperson how the NIH could be so confident of "high-quality care" given incidents like the live baboon necropsy, we were passed off to another spokesperson, Renate Myles.
Myles explained in an e-mail that the NIH's Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare determined that USDA's findings were "unsubstantiated." (She also referred to Southwest's other USDA violations — incidents in which primates died and for which Southwest paid fines — as "allegations.")
So it appears that as far as the NIH is concerned, the USDA inspector in the necropsy case was an idiot.
Myles later called the Houston Press, expressing concern about how the disagreement between the agencies was being "portrayed." She offered an off-the-record discussion with someone from the Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare in order to place its enigmatic findings in "context." Citing abject absurdity, the Press declined. Given that USDA inspections and all other documents obtained for this story are public records, the NIH's Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare should not be exempt from transparency and accountability.
While Myles stated in an e-mail that the Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare "coordinates with USDA," David Sacks, a USDA spokesman, told the Press he is not privy to the NIH's investigative criteria.
But either the Southwest vets performed a necropsy on a living animal or they didn't. The criterion is a pulse.
"I'm not paid to take hypothetical things and to try to make judgment calls," Sacks said. "Our goal is to ensure the welfare of the animals we regulate."
Which is good. It's important to have goals.
VandeBerg's library analogy especially riles Dallas doctor John Pippin.
Pippin, director of academic affairs for the Washington, D.C.-based Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, is the kind of person VandeBerg would label an "animal-rights extremist." This is because Pippin, a board-certified physician specializing in cardiovascular diseases in internal medicine who served on the faculties of Harvard Medical School and the Medical College of Virginia, disagrees with him.
When asked about his thoughts on the upcoming 30th annual AIDS symposium, he says, "We've got a handful of nothing after three decades."
He adds, "There is this lingering...dependence on discredited nonhuman primate research regarding HIV, and hopefully this 30th review of the situation will be the last, because people who have contracted HIV and people who are at risk for HIV deserve better than that. They deserve better than continuing a fruitless, money-wasting, time-wasting approach to HIV research."
Pippin believes the future of AIDS research involves human subjects — namely, the roughly one in 300 HIV-positive people who, without taking any drugs, have never developed AIDS. These "elite controllers" have undetectable viral loads and healthy immune systems.
He also finds fault in Southwest's claims in other areas of research, including hepatitis; the notion that chimpanzees were crucial to the development of a hepatitis B vaccine is "disingenuous," he says.
"Chimpanzees were not used to actually characterize the disease and develop the treatment," he says. "Chimpanzees were used to grow the virus...you could say they were incubators, but they were not essential to the research."
Pippin is also critical of Southwest's recent announcements about advances in hepatitis C research.
In August, Lanford and other scientists published the results of a study showing the effects of an antibody they say prevented hepatitis C in chimps. While the antibody wouldn't help someone whose liver is already infected with the virus, it could possibly prevent the virus from infecting a transplanted liver.
Lanford also believed an earlier study showed promising work, and he provided a copy to the Institute of Medicine committee prior to its report. In a September 2011 letter to the committee chair, he advocated for the continued use of chimps in research for vaccines for both preventing and treating hepatitis C (HCV) and B (HBV).
"Although many have spoken on behalf of the chimpanzees at research facilities...the committee has not heard from advocates of the 500 million people chronically infected with HCV and HBV," he wrote. "The peak of the epidemic of HCV infections has been with us for several decades; however, we are just entering the period of maximum mortality due to cirrhosis, end-stage liver disease and cancer...soon, most individuals will know a family member, friend or co-worker that has died of this disease. The question before you today is have we done enough, but the question will likely become, could we have done more."
Ultimately, the Institute's committee was evenly split on the necessity of chimps for the development of a preventative HCV vaccine. In its December 2011 report, the Institute committee stated there were few areas of current research where chimps might still be needed, as in the continued use of antibodies "already in the developmental pipeline," for example, and in "comparative genomics research." The latter involves the use of previously harvested blood and tissue, as well as samples taken from live chimps with "minimal risk of pain and distress." The committee also found that chimps might be necessary for behavioral research.
However, the committee recognized the possibility of a wild card: "A new, emerging or re-emerging disease or disorder...may require the future use of the chimpanzee."
These findings were reflected in Southwest's 2011 annual report, which included thoughts by Thomas Folks, the facility's associate director for research resources.
"The chimpanzee is still available for tests where it is the only animal we could use," he stated. "But the bigger question now is whether attempts will be made to limit research with other species."
As Folks ominously points out, the looming specter of limitations on research using primates other than chimps cannot be ignored.
See, it turns out that there is remarkably little that primates should not be subjected to, according to annual progress reports that Southwest has submitted to the National Institutes of Health. In addition to potentially lifesaving work done in the areas of AIDS, ebola, epilepsy, diabetes, vascular disease, osteoporosis and dementia, there are other federally funded studies that potentially could be at risk. Like the one using baboon DNA provided by Southwest that attempted to unlock the riddle of why some baboons can taste aspartame and others can't. Or the one where researchers fed a simulated fast-food diet (hamburgers, fries, shakes) to baboons and didn't let them move around, so doctors could better treat people who exclusively eat hamburgers and fries and don't move around. Or the one measuring the effects of stress on a baboon's menstrual cycle.
There's also the vital research wherein scientists plied baboons with cocaine and gave them MRIs in order to better see what cokeheads' brains look like during withdrawal. Or the federally funded study in which rhesus monkeys were bled 23 times in order to test a drug for a private pharmaceutical company, with the proprietary results not being publicly disclosed.
And then there's the one where scientists compared the brain development of euthanized baboon fetuses whose mothers ate as much food as they wanted to the brains of those whose mothers were fed 30 percent less. The brains of the fetuses who were deprived of nutrients in utero didn't develop as well as the brains of those who weren't.
The study confirmed what the researchers had suspected all along: In-utero malnutrition is not a good thing.
Most primates used in research spend their entire lives in the lab, but there are those lucky enough to make it into a sanctuary.
An hour north of Southwest, more than 500 baboons, macaques and vervets are enjoying life at the Born Free USA Primate Sanctuary. In their former lives, they toiled as lab monkeys, as sideshow attractions or as someone's pet. Sanctuary director Tim Ajax doesn't always know the lab monkeys' histories, but even when he does, he can't discuss them. Most labs require confidentiality agreements before they release their chimps to sanctuaries.
The labs "have really become very, very conscious about what information is going out there and how they appear," Ajax says. At the same time, the monkeys he gets from labs are almost always there because someone at the lab has gone to bat for them — a process that sometimes takes years.
"The sad truth is that most animals don't end up in sanctuaries," Ajax says. "Those...primates are shuffled around from facility to facility; they're kind of bought and sold between facilities or even leased out, and almost all of them die within those facilities."
Born Free recently received more than 113 monkeys from a defunct sanctuary called Wild Animal Orphanage. Some, like a stumptail macaque named Dex, are former lab monkeys whose histories are sketchy at best. Dex has only a thumb and index finger on his right hand. Whether he lost them in a fight or chewed them off himself is anyone's guess, just like whether he was used in research to find a cure for a terminal illness or to see what would happen if he stuffed his face with junk food.
But the good news is that while all of the monkeys are freaked out when they come to the sanctuary, the former lab monkeys are generally quicker to adapt.
"The research monkeys actually do better than the ex-pets in general, because they were at least left in their natal group when they were young and during their very formative years...so at least they have some social skills," Ajax says.
Still, the tension-relieving mechanisms some monkeys may have picked up in labs — self-biting, spinning in circles — seldom disappear completely.
But the bottom line, Ajax says, is that former lab monkeys can have — and do have — good lives at his sanctuary. That's why he'd like to see a built-in retirement package for all federally financed primates — a system in which all grants would include funds to ensure that primates could have as comfortable a post-research life as possible.
For chimps, the first choice for retirement would probably be Chimp Haven in Louisiana, the only federally funded primate sanctuary. It was founded by Linda Brent, a behavioral primatologist who previously worked at Southwest, where she directed the chimps' environmental enhancement program.
Some groups, like the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, would like to see Ken and the other Alamogordo chimps spend their remaining years at Chimp Haven. The mean age of death of the 12 New Mexico chimps who died between June 2010 and July 2011 was 30 (Ken's age now); the oldest was 51.
According to Pippin's review of those 12 chimps' necropsy reports, a chimp named Phoebe was euthanized at age 40 "due to lost appetite, weight loss, poor functional status and marked progression of renal failure." She was found to have "progressive renal failure due to diabetes."
Guy was 51 when he was found dead in his den late in the morning of February 3, 2011. Likely cause: Sudden cardiac death.
Candi's heart gave out at age 25 following the "extraction of several broken teeth." No specific cause of death was identified, but Candi was epileptic and had an enlarged liver and pituitary gland.
Angel was euthanized at age 26 due to "an enlarging pelvic mass, prolonged weight loss, muscle wasting and worsening metabolic profile."
Although Ken has outlived some of his peers, there is a strong chance that, given his poor health, he won't make it out of his thirties.
In April 2010, before Ken was sent to Southwest, the veterinary staff at the Air Force base wrote that although he was diagnosed with congestive heart failure, "Ken's condition is stable. He is being provided with supportive care, his conditions are medically managed and he is being intensively monitored. However, none of these treatments are curative and acute decompensation may occur."
According to the vets, Ken's heart disease ensured a "grave prognosis." That's why the vets issued a do-not-resuscitate order. In the event that Ken's heart gives out, the vets recommended, the most humane thing to do would be to let him die.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.