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By VARUN SAXENA
WASHINGTON -- Support for legislation to restrict the use of great apes in medical research is building on the heels of a report by the nonprofit Institute of Medicine which concluded that the use of chimpanzees is unnecessary in most circumstances.
Maryland policymakers, it turns out, are among its chief proponents.
Dr. Martin Wasserman, the former secretary of the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, testified Tuesday in support of the Great Apes Protection and Cost Savings Act of 2011 at a meeting of the Senate Subcommittee on Water and Wildlife chaired by Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md.
Chimpanzees are our closest relatives, but they are not great models for research because their genes are expressed differently than those in humans, Wasserman said.
"Although more than 85 HIV vaccines were developed and exhibited benefits in chimpanzees and other nonhuman primates, all failed in approximately 200 human trials," he said.
Wasserman also invoked the Hippocratic Oath to "do no harm." He said studies show chimpanzees used in scientific research suffer from clinical research.
Another benefit is $300 million in government savings over the next 10 years, Wasserman said.
The National Institutes of Health spends more than a $100 a day maintaining its chimpanzees, said James Anderson, the director of the agency's division of program coordination.
The exceptions listed in the Institute of Medicine report include research on monoclonal antibody therapies and comparative genomics. In other areas, advances in technology have eliminated the need for chimpanzees, the report said.
Wasserman acknowledged the need for an "emergency clause" exception to the bill such as a new disease or pandemic.
Cardin is a supporter of the bill. "We're heading in the right direction," he said.
Cardin said he and Wasserman have "nuanced differences" on the issue. Wasserman advocated for a more restrictive approach toward the use of chimpanzees.
Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., the committee's ranking member, said he cannot support the bill in its current form because it does not contain any of the recommended exceptions.
Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, R-Frederick, is leading the charge against chimpanzee research on the House side, and introduced legislation under the same name in April 2011.
In an August 2011 editorial in the New York Times, Bartlett wrote that chimpanzees who had been taught sign language gestured that they were traumatized by their living conditions.
There are about 950 chimpanzees in six research facilities in the United States, according to the Humane Society.
The Institute of Medicine is an arm of the National Academy of Sciences. It conducted the study at the request of the National Institutes of Health.
The NIH accepted the recommendations of the report and created a working group to implement them. The agency will not fund any new research involving chimpanzees until the working group completes its work, Anderson said.
Cardin said he will wait for more information from the working group before proceeding.