Chimpanzee hepatitis C research in the firing line

Experiments on chimpanzees have often horrified animal rights advocates and worried the medical community. One story brings the panorama of concerns to light – the story of Katrina. At 9 months, the chimpanzee Katrina was taken from her mother and taken to a New York laboratory – where scientists began disease testing on her. She was infected with hepatitis B,hepatitis C, and HIV. After years of testing, sedation, biopsies, and pain, she was retired in 2002 at the age of 20. However, eight years later, she was sent back to the laboratory.

Last year it emerged that Katrina and 201 other chimpanzees would be sent to the Southwest National Primate Research Centre, for hepatitis C research duties. Debate has since flared, and many are now reflecting on the ethical implications of chimpanzee testing. HIV testing on apes proved ineffective, and better alternatives existed for malaria testing. However, the most contentious disease is hepatitis C. Spread by blood-to-blood contact, hepatitis C kills 340,000 people around the world each year. There is no vaccine, and the chimpanzee is the only non-human animal that can be infected with hepatitis C. But whether chimpanzees are genuinely effective test subjects is hotly debated.

“In the US today, there are far more deaths due to the hepatitis C virus than HIV,” says virologist Stanley Lemon, of the University of North Carolina. “There’s no dispute about the ethical issues. The question is how you balance the need to recognize that with the potential for direct human benefit.” Hubert Blum, hepatologist at the University of Freiburg, said: “Chimpanzees for many reasons are no more the most important model for HCV infection… The possibility to infect cells in culture has revolutionized HCV research, especially in terms of testing antiviral agents.”

Bioethicist Ronald Green of Dartmouth College said:

“There must be overwhelming benefit for something that is truly injurious. I would think a requirement is to look upon these animals as very, very close to human research subjects. You don’t impose the same standards of research as on human subjects – but you’re not totally remote from that. I’d want to ask what the alternatives are, and a clear demonstration that this information is crucial to the control of disease. I’m not an opponent, but the benefits need to be immense.” ~ Wired, Nov 14

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