01/09/2012 08:56 am ET Updated Jan 09, 2012

Chimp Research: The Beginning Of The End? (VIDEO)

Hi everybody. Cara Santa Maria here.

In 1961, we blasted two chimps into space. Twenty-five years later, we bred them like crazy to study the AIDS epidemic. When we realized that, oops, chimps can't get AIDS, we ended up with a surplus of research animals.

Today, most chimp research is done on monoclonal antibodies and Hepatitis C. But new methods are allowing us to develop human antibodies outside of the animal, and most Hep C research can be safely performed in humans. Even the private pharmaceutical industry is making the shift to higher-tech, less expensive technologies. But there are still almost a thousand research chimps living at five major facilities across the country.

Last month, the Institute of Medicine released a bold statement: "Most current use of chimpanzees for biomedical research is unnecessary." Within the hour, the director of the National Institutes of Health agreed to massively scale down the use of chimps in government-funded laboratory research.

Under the new guidelines, future chimp research would receive federal funding only if no other suitable model is available, if the experiments can't be ethically performed on humans, and if without the experiments, important advancements in the prevention or treatment of life-threatening conditions would be slowed or stopped.

Other than the West African nation of Gabon, we are the only country in the entire world that still experiments on chimps. And although I haven't been talking about a ban here, there are people trying to make that happen. The Great Ape Protection and Cost Savings Act of 2011 would prevent invasive research from being performed on chimps, bonobos, orangutans, gorillas, or gibbons. There's also a petition circulating that would put captive chimpanzees on the endangered species list, just like their wild counterparts. Until then, they can legally be used in lab research, show business, and kept as pets.

Now, I advocate animal research. I have personally performed lab experiments on mice and birds, knowing that the work I did was a tiny stepping stone toward understanding how the brain works, and would, down the line, contribute to medical advances in the treatment of Parkinson's disease and traumatic brain injury.

But I am also a strong animal welfare advocate. Animals DO feel pain. They experience psychological distress. Chimpanzees are our closest genetic relatives; we share 99% of the same DNA. Chimps are highly social beings. They have the capacity to form intense bonds. They feel pleasure and empathy. They also feel grief, depression, and anxiety.

In the words of Carl Sagan, "How smart does a chimpanzee have to be before killing him constitutes murder? If chimpanzees have consciousness, do they not have what until now has been described as "human" rights?" What do you think? You can weigh in on Twitter, Facebook, or right here on the Huffington Post. Come on, talk nerdy to me!

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