Rock Center   |  January 30, 2012

Ken & Rosie: Inside chimpanzee research lab

Ken and Rosie are 30-year-old chimpanzees that were born in research labs and have spent most of their lives in labs dedicated to finding cures for human diseases. The use of chimpanzees in invasive medical research has long been debated. Primatologists like Jane Goodall argue against the use of chimpanzees in medical research, while some researchers say testing is crucial and has saved human lives. Lisa Myers reports.

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This content comes from a Full-Text Transcript of the program.

BRIAN WILLIAMS: to take you inside the emotional issue of using animals in medical research . And when these animals are chimpanzees , the issue becomes explosive. Invasive medical testing on chimps is so widely looked down upon, it's been banned in every country in the world, except the US and one other nation in Africa . But American scientists who use chimps insist that their research is both humane and vital because we share 98 percent of our DNA with chimps . They say what we learn in those experiments helps human lives. Tonight, we have a rare look inside a Texas lab at the center of this controversy, and the story of two research chimps there named Ken and Rosie . Here is our senior investigative correspondent Lisa Myers .

LISA MYERS reporting: Meet Ken , he's 30 years old, sweet, observant and playful, a gentle giant. And this is Rosie , also 30. She's known as a bit of a diva. Ken and Rosie were born in research labs and have spent most of their lives in labs dedicated to finding cures for human diseases . They've both been infected with viruses, sedated more than a hundred times, and subjected to sometimes painful procedures. Rosie was repeatedly given a drug that gave her seizures. What do you think should happen with Rosie and Ken ?

Dr. JANE GOODALL: I definitely think Rosie and Ken deserve to be retired to a sanctuary.

MYERS: Famed primatologist Jane Goodall is best known for her pioneering studies of chimpanzees in the wild. But she's also on another mission: to free chimps from invasive biomedical research .

Dr. GOODALL: Haven't those two chimpanzees earned the right for a little bit of peace?

MYERS: Instead, in 2010 , after a 10-year hiatus from invasive testing, Ken and Rosie and a dozen other chimps were sent here, to this sprawling research facility in Texas to be available for still more experiments. Dr. John VandeBerg is director of the primate center at Texas Biomedical Research Institute . Do you think there ought to be a limit on how much research any single creature should be subjected to?

Dr. JOHN VANDEBERG: What may have happened to them in the past is irrelevant to the high quality of lives that they have here.

MYERS: But that quality of life is a matter of intense debate and part of the emotional argument over whether experimenting on chimps is morally and scientifically justified to save human lives. You've been forced into a public debate. I mean, let's be honest, otherwise you wouldn't be sitting here with me.

Dr. ROBERT LANFORD: Absolutely.

MYERS: Dr. Robert Lanford is a scientist at Texas Biomed , who's used chimps in research for 27 years.

Dr. LANFORD: The American people has had the wrong opinion that these animals are in little bitty cages in a dark room with no windows.

MYERS: A dark room like the one shown in this hidden camera footage shot by PETA at a different lab in the '80s, which shows chimps isolated in tiny cages. And just a few years ago, at another lab, the Humane Society went undercover and shot this footage. A chimp terrified at the sight of a tranquilizer gun, and darted, crashing to the floor. But Lanford says chimps today are treated humanely. And to show us, scientists here agreed to do something they've never done before, allow cameras access to their secretive world.

Dr. LANFORD: We call this our research village.

MYERS: Chimps here don't live alone and isolated. All are housed in social groups and have indoor and outdoor enclosures so they can climb and swing from structures. Because many chimps are infected with diseases, caretakers and the NBC team had to wear masks and biohazard suits to get near them. We were required to shoot from a safe zone. So to get closeups, we built special equipment to attach small cameras directly to their cages. The chimps nosed right up to investigate and even tried to remove the cameras. Many were fascinated when they discovered their own reflections in the camera lens .

MARABEL: They're very curious about seeing themselves. And they like look at their eyes, their teeth, areas that you wouldn't typically see on yourself. And they're like, 'Oh, wait, that's me.'

MYERS: Marabel is a behaviorist at Texas Biomed in charge of enrichment for the chimps , to ease the boredom of life in confinement.

MARABEL: You'll see me reassuring them and pant grunting.

MYERS: You'll do what?

MARABEL: Pant grunting, it's like....

MYERS: And what are you telling them when you make that noise?

MARABEL: That I'm their friend, I'm being submissive.

MYERS: Because chimps are seven times stronger than humans and sometimes violent, they have to be tranquilized for medical procedures.

Unidentified Woman #1: Under your arm. Good job, mama.

MYERS: Texas Biomed says 75 percent of chimps here are now trained to voluntarily present body parts for shots and sedation.

Woman #1: Can you do your arm?

MYERS: We were allowed to watch one of Lanford 's experiments and see a chimp present his arm to be sedated.

Unidentified Man: Good boy, yeah, you're a good boy.

MYERS: Minutes later the meds kick in and the chimp falls. Vets draw blood as part of Lanford 's search for a cure for hepatitis C , a potentially deadly virus affecting four million Americans. They also do a quick physical.

Dr. VANDEBERG: When we talk about invasive research , we're talking about taking a blood sample, giving a chimpanzee an injection, giving a chimpanzee a pill. I don't think these actions have any effect whatsoever on chimpanzees psychologically.

Dr. GOODALL: All invasive research is torture, and not just the procedures. It's the imprisonment. It's being kept in a small space with no choice. You just are there. You're powerless.

MYERS: Jane Goodall welcomes improved conditions at the labs, but insists that's not enough.

Dr. GOODALL: Remember, we're talking about our closest living relatives with brains so sophisticated that they can do a lot of problems on a computer with a touch pad faster than secondary school students.

MYERS: We met Dr. Goodall at a private sanctuary in Montreal where she was reunited with lab chimps she helped rescue. How do they cope with living in the labs?

Dr. GOODALL: Different ways. Some of them went crazy. Some withdrew into themselves. And some self-mutilate.

MYERS: But the labs argue that without testing on chimps , more humans will die.

Dr. LANFORD: Jane Goodall is an important advocate for chimpanzees in the wild. I'm the advocate for the 500 million people chronically infected with hepatitis B and hepatitis C , and I'm trying to find a cure for them.

MYERS: And what would the consequences be if your research is shut down?

Dr. LANFORD: It will delay everything. Time is lives in this disease.

MYERS: Testing on chimps has saved lives. It helped produce the hepatitis B vaccine, which is now given to children at birth. But scientists disagree about whether chimps are needed to find a vaccine for hepatitis C. Lanford says chimps are crucial because they're the only animals that can be infected with the virus. Unlike humans, chimps rarely develop cirrhosis or liver cancer. I guess the question is, when is enough a enough?

Dr. LANFORD: You state that, 'When is enough enough?' as if we're torturing the animal or we're doing something that's severely harmful to the animal. I don't think that we're mistreating these animals .

MYERS: What about past medical records which show Rosie at risk during sedation, and Ken at high risk for sudden cardiac death?

Dr. LANFORD: We evaluated the animals , we looked at their records, and we deemed all of those animals to be suitable for research studies.

MYERS: And the lab points out that federal inspectors recently said the chimps appeared to be in excellent health. Lanford also tests a type of drug called monochromal antibodies, looking for treatments for diseases like cancer. The testing can be dangerous. How many chimps have died in the course of these studies?

Dr. LANFORD: I'm aware of five animals in the last decade that had adverse events to a drug that was on its way into humans.

MYERS: So you can't really say that all the research conducted here poses no health risk to these chimps ?

Dr. LANFORD: That's right . I can't make a promise that the next drug we put into an animal won't have an adverse event. What I do know is that I'd rather have it happen here than have it happen in somebody's relative, someone's child, someone's father in a clinical trial.

Unidentified Woman #2: See now, I'm just palpating her abdomen, looking for anything abnormal.

MYERS: But in a drug trial , the human has a choice. The chimp has no choice.

Dr. VANDEBERG: You are correct. Chimpanzees do not have a choice to participate in medical research . And pigs do not have a choice to participate in the grinding up of sausage. These are animals . They are used by humans for the welfare of humans. No matter how much some people may wish it were so, chimpanzees are not people. They are chimpanzees .