The Primate Directive
Could the key to reversing human autism be found in the monkey trials at a little-known NIH facility? That’s what researchers there hope, as they work to unlock the mysteries behind that and other human diseases and disorders
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Pigs—both farm and Yucatan—live in separate stalls, sheep sometimes graze the fields outside, and mice live in hermetically sealed boxes to protect them from potential diseases.
“We are always trying to think about ways to keep the animals enriched,” says Woodward, a petite, energetic woman who has worked at Poolesville for 11 years. “With monkeys, that means you can’t just give them a banana every day. It means you have to hide the food in their bedding so they forage, and we have to create situations so they behave as they would naturally.”
Woodward grew up in Rockville, and as a child she’d bring injured animals to her father, a physician at NIH. She briefly considered becoming an emergency medical technician, but kept ending up working with animals and eventually got her degree at the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine. She married another veterinarian who works on the north side of the Poolesville animal center, and together they own a dog and raise cows and horses on their nearby farm.
“I love my job here,” Woodward says. “You have so many unique species. What we like to say as veterinarians is that medical doctors only need to know one species, but we have to know many.”
Woodward gets attached to the animals, but that’s not the only reason she tries to keep them healthy and minimize their stress. It’s critical to the integrity of the research. “If you try to do a study on an animal that is stressed or has an infection, you won’t get good results,” she says. “Good animal care and good research go hand in hand.”
That’s why, she says, a visitor isn’t allowed in the primate nursery on the south side. The infants are vulnerable, and visitors could disrupt research and spread disease.
Every year, about 60 female monkeys are used for breeding, and the infants are raised by their mothers or in the nursery. Some of these monkeys will be involved in Suomi’s genetics research.
Once the monkeys reach maturity, they’ll either stay at Poolesville for breeding and/or research or be sent to research institutions elsewhere.
Under NIH rules, researchers at each institution need approval to use animals. An oversight group called the Animal Care and Use Committee evaluates requests at each institute and monitors them to make sure animal welfare rules are followed.
Eckard has worked at Poolesville for 18 years and at NIH for 22, and sits on the animal care committee for the Office of Research Services (ORS). The Poolesville animal center gets funding from multiple NIH institutes, and the ORS manages the overall operations of the center.
Eckard grew up near dairy farms in Maryland, studied animal science at the University of Maryland, and then became a licensed laboratory veterinarian technician. She got a job at NIH and worked her way up to facility manager at Poolesville.
“I consider myself lucky to be working out here,” says Eckard, who lives nearby with three pet dogs and is active in American Kennel Club competitions. It’s a lot better, she says, than being in “the busy, busy city of Bethesda.”
Since 1987, the National Institute on Aging has funded a calorie-restriction study involving monkeys on the north side of the NIH facility. One group of monkeys was getting 30 percent fewer calories than a control group to determine the impact of diet on aging. In August, the NIH announced the results: Calorie restriction didn’t appear to extend life, though it did help delay age-related diseases such as diabetes, diverticulitis and arthritis.
Aside from that one study, though, the NIH is mum on the focus of other research. “I wish I could tell you more,” Burkholder says. “I don’t think we have anything to hide, but there have been animal [rights activists] who have done nasty things to investigators and their families, and [the researchers] just don’t want to get attention unnecessarily.”
Several years ago, members of Primate Freedom Project, an animal activist group based in Fayetteville, Ga., camped out with signs in front of the facility and protested in downtown Poolesville. They describe Suomi as a “sadist” on the organization’s blog. (The group didn’t respond to requests for comment.)
“I don’t enjoy” being targeted, Suomi says, but “people are entitled to their own opinions.” He says he’s happy to address concerns. “Our goal is to make this place second to none with respect to concern for animal welfare,” he says.
Burkholder, too, emphasizes the facility’s efforts to treat the animals humanely. “Sometimes people ask: ‘You’re a veterinarian, you must love animals. How can you work for a research [facility]?’ And I say, ‘That is exactly why I work for [animal] research. I am passionate about making sure the animals are treated humanely and receive the best care that they can.’ I am very proud of how much care goes into taking care of the animals.”
There’s no denying, though, that using animals in research remains controversial. In a 2011 USA Today/Gallup poll, about 55 percent of those surveyed said the use of animals in medical testing was “moral,” down from 65 percent a decade earlier.
Groups like the Animal Liberation Front have used extreme measures against scientists known to be involved in animal research, even vandalizing their homes.
The Humane Society of the United States has taken a more moderate approach, trying to work with scientists even as it raises questions about the use of animals. Kathleen Conlee, the Humane Society’s vice president of animal research issues, asks, for instance, if Suomi’s research couldn’t just as easily be conducted on humans.
“Are we using our tax dollars to fund the best research?” she asks.
Suomi says: Yes. Studying monkeys in a lab enables researchers to control genetics and the environment, he says. They also can measure behavioral and physical changes daily, which they cannot with humans. And because monkeys age four times faster than people, a researcher can study how many characteristics of a parent are passed on to a child more quickly.
Still, scientists themselves are questioning what kinds of animals should be used. In December 2011, the Institute of Medicine (IOM), an independent medical advisory organization for the government, determined that most research involving chimpanzees wasn’t necessary.
“We have used animals because they are readily available and because they have long been used...as a way of doing early research that can’t be done in humans,” says Jeffrey Kahn, the Levi professor of bioethics and public policy at the Johns Hopkins University Berman Institute of Bioethics who oversaw the IOM report on chimpanzees. But, he adds, it’s perhaps time to question those assumptions.
Public and private institutions in the United States use about 17 million animals a year for research. That number is down from two decades ago, according to Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Alternatives to Animal Testing.
In September 2011, NIH, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the FDA announced that they would jointly invest more than $100 million in developing three-dimensional human organs on computer chips for medical testing. The work is being conducted at multiple academic, research and NIH institutions through the agency’s newly created National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences in Bethesda. The goal is to successfully reproduce human tissue on chips in five years and develop a more reliable method for testing new drugs and devices within a decade. If the technology succeeds, there could be a significant reduction in animal use.
“I think we are a long way from that,” Burkholder says. But “I would love to have to retire because I wasn’t needed anymore.”
Bara Vaida is a longtime health policy and business writer who lives in Washington, D.C.