A primate sits atop a twig inside the SNRPC. Photo by G. Harrison for Texas Biomed.
A primate sits atop a twig inside the SNRPC. Photo by G. Harrison for Texas Biomed.

Research on nonhuman primates at the Southwest National Primate Research Center (SNPRC) at Texas Biomedical Research Institute is now funded through 2021 thanks to a $40 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

The five-year P51 grant allows the SNPRC to continue its research focus in three main areas: aging and regenerative medicine, experimental physiology and genomics, and infectious diseases, using its nearly 3,000 nonhuman primates. This is the grant’s fourth renewal.

“We are excited to have received a continuation of the commitment from NIH to support SNPRC and the lifesaving work we do,” stated Texas Biomed President and CEO Robert Gracy in a news release.

The SNPRC is one of seven centers within the National Primate Research Centers (NPRC) consortia. Each center must individually reapply for the P51 grant every five years. The SNPRC submitted their 1,800-page grant last year, and had to undergo a site visit of 35 outside scientists and NIH officials before winning the grant.

The money does more than just fund current research programs. Scientist and Director of SNPRC Robert Lanford said they focused on the future when writing the grant.

“The funding is for a five-year period, but our vision needs to be further out so we are organizing ourselves to meet the needs of the future,” Lanford told the Rivard Report. “It’s not just today’s science project, it’s what are we doing with the vision that will carry on in five years.”

A scientist works inside a research lab at the SNPRC.  Photo by G. Harrison for Texas Biomed.
A scientist works inside a research lab at the SNPRC.  Photo by G. Harrison for Texas Biomed.

The money allows the Center to maintain breeding and research colonies of nonhuman primate species, particularly marmosets, rhesus macaques, and baboons, so that scientists can continue answering questions about vaccinations and disease research. The SNPRC is currently targeting HIV, Hepatitis B, Ebola, and Zika, which has made its way to the continental United States as of February.

Improving infrastructure is another outlet for the grant money.

“Our team is delighted to receive this grant support from NIH, as we strive to maintain our reputation of excellence in the care of nonhuman primates in research,” stated Dr. John Bernal, associate director of veterinary resources and research support, in a news release. “Our goal is to provide the best environment possible for animals in research, and this support will allow us to continue to improve our facilities and the training of our team.”

The work SNPRC does has the power to change people’s lives, Lanford said. Although he does not discount other methods of research, such as cell cultures or computer models, research with animals is a critical part of advancing human health.

“During the past century, most major medical advancements and treatments involved research using animal models, and these models are still very much needed as we continue to learn more about how to treat and – one day – cure diseases like diabetes, the Ebola virus, heart disease, Hepatitis, HIV, Malaria, Parkinson’s, and so much more,” Lanford stated in a news release.

Since the creation of the first NPRCs in the 1950s, the centers have played an integral role in the advancement of childhood vaccines and other cures and treatments for harmful diseases. Although animal rights activists oppose animal testing and are known to protest such methods, Lanford said testing on nonhuman primates is a necessity to advancing human health care.

“We rely on lab results and mouse results long before we test on primates, but eventually, many things will have to be tested on primates before they go into a human,” he said.

The SNPRC has to follow guidelines set by USDA and hosts two unannounced visits from USDA officials every year. He said each person at the Center works within a framework that ensures the utmost care for the animals. The animals’ diets are monitored, cages are cleaned, and behaviorists monitor the environment and social behavior of each animal. SNPRC employees also take measures to minimize stress and pain on the animals by giving them anesthetics or sedatives during testing. 

“The people that work here have the same level of empathy for animals as the people who object to the research,” he said. “They may think differently, but we all have dogs and cats at home and we love those animals. When we come to work, that doesn’t change. We love these animals and we take very good care of these animals and they are in the best situation possible (when it comes to) a research environment.

We want to engage the public and we want them to understand how we do these studies. We are part of a public service to improve human health care.”


Top image: A marmoset sits atop a twig at the SNPRC.  Photo by G. Harrison for the SNPRC. 

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Katie Walsh studies journalism and English at the University of Texas at Austin and will graduate in May 2017.