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Lessons from Chimpanzee-based Research on Human Disease: The Implications of Genetic Differences


Jarrod Bailey

Assertions that the use of chimpanzees to investigate human diseases is valid scientifically are frequently based on a reported 98–99% genetic similarity between the species. Critical analyses of the relevance of chimpanzee studies to human biology, however, indicate that this genetic similarity does not result in sufficient physiological similarity for the chimpanzee to constitute a good model for research, and furthermore, that chimpanzee data do not translate well to progress in clinical practice for humans. Leading examples include the minimal citations of chimpanzee research that is relevant to human medicine, the highly different pathology of HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C virus infection in the two species, the lack of correlation in the efficacy of vaccines and treatments between chimpanzees and humans, and the fact that chimpanzees are not useful for research on human cancer. The major molecular differences underlying these inter-species phenotypic disparities have been revealed by comparative genomics and molecular biology — there are key differences in all aspects of gene expression and protein function, from chromosome and chromatin structure to post-translational modification. The collective effects of these differences are striking, extensive and widespread, and they show that the superficial similarity between human and chimpanzee genetic sequences is of little consequence for biomedical research. The extrapolation of biomedical data from the chimpanzee to the human is therefore highly unreliable, and the use of the chimpanzee must be considered of little value, particularly given the breadth and potential of alternative methods of enquiry that are currently available to science.

Full text pdf 39(6), 527–540