The Texas Biomedical Research Institute, in partnership with the Southwest National Primate Research Center, broke ground on a new animal care complex Wednesday that will help address the nation’s primate shortage and accelerate the institute’s infectious disease research.

The complex will consist of four new buildings constructed on Texas Biomed’s 200-acre campus, providing indoor and outdoor housing for up to 800 primates. It will include a veterinary clinic, pathology labs and a central meeting space for animal care staff. Construction is expected to wrap up by 2023.

A $4 million grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration aided fundraising efforts for the roughly $15 million project, Texas Biomed said. Donor support and institutional funds are covering the remaining costs.

This is the institute’s first major construction project under its 10-year strategic plan, which was launched in 2019 under the leadership of Texas Biomed President and CEO Dr. Larry Schlesinger. Although not present for Wednesday’s groundbreaking ceremony due to personal health reasons, Schlesinger sent a statement.

Under the plan, Texas Biomed will double its faculty and redesign its campus by 2030 in order to concentrate more on the study of infectious diseases.

A rendering shows what the future primate care facility, veterinary clinic and pathology lab complex will look like. Credit: Courtesy / Texas Biomedical Research Institute

“The new animal care complex will become 18,000-square feet of housing, clinical care and pathology labs that allows Texas Biomed to continue being a leader in infectious disease research in this country and also beyond,” Schlesinger stated. “This facility will enable us to grow and support international needs for animals in research as well.”

The new complex will be built to withstand severe weather, a lesson staff learned after having to amputate frostbitten fingers, toes and tail tips from 159 of its baboons after the unexpected deep freeze in February. Like many of San Antonio’s buildings, the institute’s animal facilities lost power and had damaged pipes that resulted in an inability to keep the animals properly warm for several hours. 

With a serious shortage of primates plaguing the world scientific community, this new facility will be a premier place for breeding, officials said. Texas Biomed primates currently include baboons, macaques and marmosets.

Significant medical advancements have come out of research performed on primates from the Southwest National Primate Research Center, including the neonatal high-frequency ventilator, hepatitis B vaccine, hepatitis C cure and Ebola virus treatment and vaccine, officials said.

COVID-19 therapeutics and vaccines were also shown to be safe and effective thanks to studies with Southwest National Primate Research Center primates before they moved into human clinical trials, they added.

“Alongside our scientists, the animals at [the Southwest National Primate Research Center] are saving lives, and it is our honor and privilege to care for them as they provide so much for human health,” read Schlesinger’s statement.

The institute’s existing care facilities help it support and “enrich” the lives of the 2,500 primates Southwest National Primate Research Center’s staff currently care for, said Texas Biomed Director of Public Relations Nicole Foy.

Last month, institute officials gave the San Antonio Report a tour of its existing animal care facilities, which include a kitchen where fresh produce is prepared for up to 1,000 primates daily, a 6-acre open enclosure that houses about 200 baboon males away from the main group of primates, and enrichment facilities where caretakers come up with daily activities, toys, and games to entertain the primates.

The toys have to be sturdy since the primates are extremely strong, said Blake Harrington, animal care supervisor. Toys include puzzles that help develop finger dexterity, colorful tough plastic balls and bright hanging rattles.

“Sometimes we’ll have TVs in their bay and we’ll put on DVDs, movies,” animal cognition specialist Neil Driscoll said. The programming is “always changing.” Favorites include Little Einsteins, National Geographic Kids and videos of other primates, he said.

The new complex will allow Southwest National Primate Research Center staff to expand the institute’s enrichment facilities, Foy said: “Everything we have at the existing facilities we will have at the new complex, and then some.”

Lindsey Carnett

Lindsey Carnett is the Science & Utilities reporter for the San Antonio Report.