Given that chimpanzees are so closely related to humans and share similar behavioural traits, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) should allow their use as subjects in biomedical research only under stringent conditions, including the absence of any other suitable model and inability to ethically perform the research on people, according to a report released on Thursday from the Institute of Medicine and National Research Council.

In addition, use of these animals should be permissible only if forgoing their use will prevent or significantly hinder advances necessary to prevent or treat life-threatening or debilitating conditions, said the committee that wrote the report. Based on these criteria, chimpanzees are not necessary for most biomedical research.

The report comes amid Congressional pressure to make sure such research is completed humanely.

NIH also should limit the use of chimpanzees in behavioural research studies that provide otherwise unattainable insights into normal and abnormal behaviour, mental health, emotion, or cognition, the report says. NIH should require these studies to be performed only on acquiescent animals using techniques that are minimally invasive and are applied in a manner that minimizes pain and distress. Animals used in either biomedical or behavioural studies must be maintained in appropriate physical and social environments or in natural habitats, the report adds.

“The report’s recommendations answer the need for a uniform set of criteria for assessing the scientific necessity of chimpanzees in biomedical, comparative genomics, and behavioural research,” said committee chair Jeffrey Kahn, senior faculty member, Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics, Baltimore. “The committee concluded that research use of animals that are so closely related to humans should not proceed unless it offers insights not possible with other animal models and unless it is of sufficient scientific or health value to offset the moral costs. We found very few cases that satisfy these criteria.” According to the Institute of Medicine, because of advances in research tools and methods, it’s no longer necessary to use chimpanzees as research subjects in many research projects. In a briefing on Thursday, the Institute did recognize two possible uses for chimps: The development of a limited number of monoclonal antibody therapies for cancerous tumours that are already part of ongoing investigations, and for the development of a vaccine that would prevent infection by hepatitis C virus.

The report’s recommendations focus on the scientific necessity of the chimpanzee as a research subject, but also take ethical issues into account. Chimpanzees’ genetic closeness to humans and their similar biological and behavioural characteristics not only make chimpanzees a uniquely valuable species for certain types of research but also demand greater justification for conducting research with them, the committee said.