At the Oregon National Primate Research Center (NPRC), run by the Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU), researchers are working to fight diseases from Alzheimer’s to Zika Virus through biomedical research. The Oregon research center is the oldest and largest of seven primate research centers in the United States and has five research divisions: neuroscience, cardiometabolic health, genetics, pathobiology and immunology, and reproductive and developmental sciences. There is also a sixth, non-research division, the Division of Comparative Medicine, that is dedicated to the care and well-being of the animals. The research center is home to over 5,200 nonhuman primates, including mostly rhesus and Japanese macaques, plus a small number of baboons. The macaques have been bred at the research center since right after the center received an initial group when it opened in 1964. Since then, the animals have been the subjects of research at the center, helping scientists to study diseases and work toward discovering treatments for some of the world’s most widespread health issues. The center receives the majority of its funding through philanthropists Phil Knight and Bill and Melinda Gates, as well as through the National Institutes of Health and other private donors.
The primates are not the first step in the biomedical research process, but they are an important one. “[The research progression] is usually cell culture, to purpose-bred mouse, to monkey,” says Diana Gordon, an Educational Outreach Specialist for the center. The first steps of the research progression need to be followed carefully and thoroughly before the possibility of a human clinical trial can even be considered. The FDA has to approve and closely monitor all animal research, and scientists have to prove that their work is safe and effective on two different animal models before they are given the go-ahead by the FDA to test their therapies on humans.
One of the most recent advances made at the Oregon NPRC through genetic research of the macaques could potentially lead to a breakthrough in addiction science. “One of our [genetics] researchers was able to identify a gene that is associated with drinking behaviors, with alcohol addiction… She was able to show that genetic therapy will upregulate one of the genes that she believes is involved in this behavior, and when that happens, the monkeys stop [preferring alcohol],” says Gordon. This gene that was identified in monkeys is also present in humans, so this discovery could open a new door to help those suffering from substance use disorders. Researchers are also testing a new vaccine therapy for Campylobacter, an infection of the digestive system that causes diarrhea, which is the leading cause of child death in developing countries. The vaccine, if proven effective, could save over a million young lives every year.
Although biomedical research on animals is quite controversial, scientists at any of the NPRCs would argue that it is necessary. “The animals are necessary because we don’t have any other model [for research], and we are not allowed to haul off and try our ideas on people until we try them somewhere beforehand,” says Gordon. “Cell culture research can tell us some stuff about how those cells are working and we can maybe even try therapies on those cells, but it doesn’t tell us what is going to happen when we try the same things on an ecosystem within a larger living organism.” The help and sacrifice of one monkey could help lead to a discovery that makes lives better for countless people for generations to come. These monkeys are being used to search for a cure for AIDS, Huntington’s disease, infertility disorders, and even cancer. To these scientists, opposing biomedical research on animals is saying the life of one monkey is more important than the lives of billions of human beings who suffer from possibly curable diseases.
The necessity of animals in the beginning steps of biomedical research does not make it any easier when it is time to say goodbye to a monkey at the research center. The monkeys there generally live between 25 and 30 years, over ten years longer than they live in the wild, and are looked after by a team of over 150 people in the Division of Comparative Medicine that establish relationships with the animals. “It’s always hard to say goodbye to an animal that’s been with us,” says Gordon. To make an animal’s inevitable passing easier, the team at the research center tries to make their lives as happy as possible. They are put into different enclosures, specifically grouped to avoid inbreeding and emphasize compatibility, having been studied by several of the center’s twelve behaviorists. They are given two set meals each day, along with an additional third meal called “enrichment” that allows the monkeys to engage their natural behavior by foraging, solving a puzzle, digging, or climbing to get to their food. The macaques, the second most adaptable primate, live in duplexes with both indoor and outdoor areas, heated floors for when it gets cold, fans for when it’s too warm, and much equipment to play and relax on. When a monkey is deemed suitable for a specific study, they will never go into it alone, but are instead paired by the behaviorist with another monkey that is also eligible for the study, one whom they have lived with, gotten along with, and liked. “They get to go in with their best friend by their side,” says Gordon. The truth of experimenting on monkeys is difficult, but says Gordon, “if we can do it ethically, compassionately, legally, and as safely as we can then I’m good with that.”