Blogging About Critters Since 2007

Friday, December 21, 2007

Chimps Helping Humans Again - Whether They Want to Or Not

Interesting article about the apparent ability of chimps to self-medicate and science's attempts to co-opt their knowledge to make pharmaceutical drugs (and money!)

Ugandan and French scientists have for months been observing the behaviour of a group of chimpanzees whose uncanny aptitude for self-medication could help their human cousins discover new drugs.

The great apes' ability to treat ailments by adjusting their diet has long been observed by scientists, including world-renowned primatologist Jane Goodall, but a project in Uganda's Kibale forest offers a unique opportunity for pharmaceutical research.

"It's the first time that a chimpanzee observation aimed at discovering new medicine for humans is conducted within a scientific framework," said Sabrina Krief, a French veterinary and professor at the Paris National History Museum....

The key moment in the observation is when one among the group of around 50 chimps she monitors gets sick.

The primate's choice of food -- what he pulls out of his medicine chest -- is packed with information that could lead the scientists to new discoveries.

"We want to compare which plants are used by the traditional healers or traditional practitioners, and the medicines used by chimpanzees. Is there a relation for the kind of treatment they go for?," Kasenene said.

"What is surprising to me is that these chimps have no chemist, no lab... They simply move in and collect plants and eventually find themselves getting cured," the 27-year-old marvelled. "It's a proof that they are very close to us."

I'm a cynic and I know it. As soon as I read this article, which should have been inspiring, here was my first thought, "Here we go admiring and leaching off the ingrained knowledge of animals, only to later disavow their similarity to humans and stick them in labs."

As long as their freedom serves our benefit, we keep them in the wild. As soon as our needs require their sacrifice, all bets are off.

Photo by emeybee.

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