AR-News: Desperate labs: Monkeys wanted

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Fri Aug 8 16:39:57 EDT 2003


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http://www.boston.com/dailyglobe2/221/nation/Desperate_labs_Monkeys_wanted+.
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Desperate labs: Monkeys wanted

Research slowed amid shortage, spike in prices

By Anne Barnard, Globe Staff, 8/9/2003

They're brown and hairy, they weigh in at about 15 pounds, and they're among
the most sought-after players in medical science. Rhesus macaque monkeys
have long been favorite laboratory subjects in the quest to cure disease
because of their physiological similarity to humans and because their long
history of participating in experiments has made them one of scientists'
best-understood species.

But in recent years, public-health crises ranging from AIDS to the fear of
bioterrorism have led to a monkey shortage that has scientists paying $5,000
to $10,000 per monkey, buying one another's ''used'' primates, even trading
in monkey futures -- rights to rhesus macaques in the womb.

Eight federally funded centers breed the monkeys and carry out experiments
for researchers around the world, housing more than 15,000 rhesus macaques,
up from about 12,000 in 1996. Still, supply is not keeping up with demand,
said Dr. Jerry Robinson, director of the National Primate Research Centers
Program at the National Institutes of Health. NIH-funded AIDS research alone
used more than 2,000 monkeys in 2001 -- 200 more than the national centers
can produce in a year.

The shortage is holding up scientists' efforts to create cures from new
knowledge, such as the human genome sequence, organ transplant techniques,
and the use of stem cells to replace diseased or damaged tissue, said Dr.
Joseph Kemnitz, director of the National Primate Research Center at the
University of Wisconsin at Madison. ''The promise for improving health and
quality of life in people is tremendous with this new information, but it
all needs to be evaluated in animals before we start doing it in people,''
he said. ''People are just unable to perform the research that they intended
to do.''

In Boston, Dr. Judy Lieberman and Dr. Ruth Ruprecht had to slow down
research on a promising oral AIDS vaccine as they waited a year for an NIH
grant big enough to buy, house, and study 86 rhesus monkeys, which will cost
$400,000 in the first year of their $12 million project.

Money is not the problem for Dee Schramm in Wisconsin. Three years ago, the
reproductive physiologist won a grant to employ test-tube fertilization to
produce 125 rhesus monkeys with special genetic characteristics for use in
AIDS vaccine research. But with no available females at the Madison primate
center to carry the embryos to term, he has been unable to produce a single
monkey. He imported 60 monkeys from China, but was forced to return them
when they developed antibiotic-resistant diarrhea. Now, he said, he will
either ship the frozen embryos to another center or ''terminate the work.''

The monkey shortage ''is slowing down AIDS research; there's no question,''
Ruprecht, a professor at Harvard Medical School based at Dana-Farber Cancer
Institute, said.

Lieberman, a senior investigator at the Center for Blood Research, added,
''It's going to become a bottleneck for other kinds of therapies as well.''

The newest wave of demand has not hit yet, scientists said. The National
Institutes of Health are handing out $1.4 billion in new grants for research
on bioterrorism agents such as anthrax. Scientists said the growing field
could have as great an impact as the advent of AIDS, which increased demand
for monkeys by about 30 percent, Kemnitz said.

So scientists are asking for $100 million from the NIH to expand and
modernize the eight research centers, as well as pay for new background
research on other species, such as the cynomolgus acaque and the African
green monkey -- that scientists could use instead of rhesus monkeys.

''The NIH has perked up and is paying greater attention to this issue,''
said April Burke, a lobbyist hired by the universities affiliated with the
research centers. Both the Senate and House drafts of next year's budget
include lines urging the NIH to take steps to ensure adequate monkey
resources.

Scientists have realized the shortage for years but have sought to address
the issue quietly, partly because of fear of a backlash. Some animal-rights
groups oppose nearly all animal research as cruel or unnecessary, while
other critics say the primates' intelligence makes it unethical to
experiment on them.

''We only use primates for studies that cannot be conducted any other way,''
Burke said. ''If we can use a computer, we use a computer. If we can use a
mouse, we use a mouse.''

Kemnitz said researchers follow stringent ethical guidelines and cannot help
caring about the monkeys. ''The key to working with these animals is to give
them an expectation of what you need from them; when they have that, they're
pretty calm about it. You can train animals to stick an arm or leg out of
the cage to get a blood sample . . . you can get them to take medication
orally.''

It takes time to build up a population of rhesus monkeys because, like
humans, they have slow reproductive cycles. They live about 26 years, reach
sexual maturity at age 4, and typically have no more than one infant a year.

More than 49,000 monkeys and apes were used in medical research in 2001,
according to the US Department of Agriculture, including drug-company and
other privately funded work. No comprehensive data exist on supply and
demand. But the increase in price -- quintupling from about $1,000 five
years ago, scientists say -- reflects a growing shortage exacerbated since
1999 as the NIH budget doubled, fueling demand for research monkeys.

The trouble began in the late 1970s, when India halted the monkeys' export
to the United States. Then, AIDS increased the number of experiments that
probably would kill the monkeys. And researchers increasingly need special,
more expensive monkeys free of certain bacteria or viruses.

The nation's primate centers have long waiting lists. Researchers also can
turn to commercial suppliers in Texas, Florida, even the Czech Republic or
China. Scientists share lists of ''used'' monkeys that were involved in
previous research that would not affect the outcome of new experiments.
Others are helping monkey-supplying countries in Asia set up primate centers
so monkeys would not have to be shipped far.

Ruprecht, Lieberman, and their colleagues are relying on the monkey research
to develop an AIDS vaccine pill, designed to be easily stored and
distributed in places like rural Africa. Ruprecht said research she
published in 1995 headed off development of an earlier AIDS vaccine because
it ended up infecting newborn rhesus monkeys with the disease. ''It probably
saved [researchers from] starting inappropriate trials and exposing people
to a dangerous vaccine,'' she said.

Anne Barnard can be reached at abarnard at globe.com
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