March 3, 2021

Scientific discovery is an ongoing process that takes time, observation, data collection and analysis, patience and more. At the NPRCs, our recent COVID-19 research is an example of the ongoing basic science process — how current research builds on previous discoveries and how discoveries help improve human health. This article from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) explains why basic science, such as the NPRCs conduct, is important and how taking time, as long as it takes, is a necessary part of scientific discovery.

Discoveries in Basic Science: A Perfectly Imperfect Process

Have you ever wondered why science takes so long? Maybe you haven’t thought about it much. But waiting around to hear more about COVID-19 may have you frustrated with the process.

Science can be slow and unpredictable. Each research advance builds on past discoveries, often in unexpected ways. It can take many years to build up enough basic knowledge to apply what scientists learn to improve human health.

“You really can’t understand how a disease occurs if you don’t understand how the basic biological processes work in the first place,” says Dr. Jon Lorsch, director of NIH’s National Institute of General Medical Sciences. “And of course, if you don’t understand how the underlying processes work, you don’t have any hope of actually fixing them and curing those diseases.”

Basic research asks fundamental questions about how life works. Scientists study cells, genes, proteins, and other building blocks of life. What they find can lead to better ways to predict, prevent, diagnose, and treat disease.

How Basic Research Works

When scientists are interested in a topic, they first read previous studies to find out what’s known. This lets them figure out what questions still need to be asked.

Using what they learn, scientists design new experiments to answer important unresolved questions. They collect and analyze data, and evaluate what the findings might mean.

The type of experiment depends on the question and the field of science. A lot of what we know about basic biology so far has come from studying organisms other than people.

“If one wants to delve into the intricate details of how cells work or how the molecules inside the cells work together to make processes happen, it can be very difficult to study them in humans,” Lorsch explains. “But you can study them in a less complicated life form.”

These are called research organisms. The basic biology of these organisms can be similar to ours, and much is already known about their genetic makeup. They can include yeast, fruit flies, worms, zebrafish, and mice.

Computers can also help answer basic science questions. “You can use computers to look for patterns and to try to understand how the different data you’ve collected can fit together,” Lorsch says.

But computer models have limits. They often rely on what’s already known about a process or disease. So it’s important that the models include the most up-to-date information. Scientists usually have more confidence in predictions when different computer models come up with similar answers.

This is true for other types of studies, too. One study usually only uncovers a piece of a much larger puzzle. It takes a lot of data from many different scientists to start piecing the puzzle together.

Building Together

Science is a collective effort. Researchers often work together and communicate with each other regularly. They chat with other scientists about their work, both in their lab and beyond. They present their findings at national and international conferences. Networking with their peers lets them get feedback from other experts while doing their research.

Once they’ve collected enough evidence to support their idea, researchers go through a more formal peer-review process. They write a paper summarizing their study and try to get it published in a scientific journal. After they submit their study to a journal, editors review it and decide whether to send it to other scientists for peer review.

“Peer review keeps us all informed of each other’s work, makes sure we’re staying on the cutting-edge with our techniques, and maintains a level of integrity and honesty in science,” says Dr. Windy Boyd, a senior science editor who oversees the peer-review process at NIH’s scientific journal of environmental health research and news.

Different experts evaluate the quality of the research. They look at the methods and how the results were gathered.

“Peer reviewers can all be looking at slightly different parts of the work,” Boyd explains. “One reviewer might be an expert in one specific method, where another reviewer might be more of an expert in the type of study design, and someone else might be more focused on the disease itself.”

Peer reviewers may see problems with the experiments or think different experiments are needed. They might offer new ways to interpret the data. They can also reject the paper because of poor quality, a lack of new information, or other reasons. But if the research passes this peer review process, the study is published.

Just because a study is published doesn’t mean its interpretation of the data is “right.” Other studies may support a different hypothesis.

Scientists work to develop different explanations, or models, for the various findings. They usually favor the model that can explain the most data that’s available.

“At some point, the weight of the evidence from different research groups points strongly to an answer being the most likely,” Lorsch explains. “You should be able to use that model to make predictions that are testable, which further strengthens the likelihood that that answer is the correct one.”

An Ever-Changing Process

Science is always a work in progress. It takes many studies to figure out the “most accurate” model—which doesn’t mean the “right” model.

It’s a self-correcting process. Sometimes experiments can give different results when they’re repeated. Other times, when the results are combined with later studies, the current model no longer can explain all the data and needs to be updated.

“Science is constantly evolving; new tools are being discovered,” Boyd says. “So our understanding can also change over time as we use these different tools.”

Science looks at a question from many different angles with many different techniques. Stories you may see or read about a new study may not explain how it fits into the bigger picture.

“It can seem like, at times, studies contradict each other,” Boyd explains. “But the studies could have different designs and often ask different questions.”

The details of how studies are different aren’t always explained in stories in the media. Only over time does enough evidence accumulate to point toward an explanation of all the different findings on a topic.

“The storybook version of science is that the scientist is doing something, and there’s this eureka moment where everything is revealed,” Lorsch says. “But that’s really not how it happens. Everything is done one increment at a time.”

 

December 15, 2020

Research with animals is crucial to improving human and animal health. Animals in research provide unique insights not available with other scientific models, and they help scientists determine safety and effectiveness of preventions, treatments and cures. During the COVID-19 pandemic, animals in research have been especially important in accelerating the development COVID-19 vaccines as well as better diagnostics and additional treatment options.

At the NPRCs, we’re helping fill a critical role in halting COVID-19 by leading NIH-funded studies at our centers. We’re also participating in the public-private partnership ACTIV (Accelerating COVID-19 Therapeutic Interventions and Vaccines) to develop treatments and vaccines by sharing our knowledge, resources and animals, including conducting preclinical studies with NPRC monkeys for some of the leading industry vaccine candidates.

Scientific collaboration is especially important during a pandemic when time is of the essence and, in this case, animal resources are limited. At the onset of the pandemic, monkey importation was halted, putting increasing demands on the NPRC animal colonies, which were already limited in quantity and availability. The NPRCs account for only 1 in every 5 nonhuman primates (NHPs) used in U.S.-based research, so the limited supply at a time of high demand impacts NPRC COVID-related studies as well as pre-pandemic studies under way at the NPRCs and those in planning stages.

The NPRCs remain dedicated to our other areas of study, including research into HIV/AIDS and other infectious diseases, the neurosciences, cardiovascular and respiratory health, genetics and transplant medicine. 

We are also committed to meeting the future needs of animals for NIH-funded research. This is why the NPRCs support establishing a strategic reserve of NHPs to be used in times of national health crises. We are already growing our on-site breeding colonies when time, space and funding permit, strategically assigning animals to research protocols, harmonizing across centers for efficient use of animals and increasing rigor and reproducibility to facilitate collaboration and consistency across research labs. These strategic steps now further position the NPRCs for the translation of our research advancements from cell and animal models to humans, and are indicative of our commitment to help people across generations and the world live longer, healthier lives. 

To learn more about the NPRCs’ ongoing efforts to combat COVID-19, visit this page.

Editor’s Note, 2/22/21: The New York Times covered the research monkey shortage in today’s issue. Read the story here.

November 6, 2020

It’s been 25 years since University of Wisconsin-Madison scientist James Thomson, VMD, PhD, was the first in the world to isolate and culture primate embryonic stem cells. He accomplished this breakthrough with nonhuman primates (NHPs) at the Wisconsin National Primate Research Center (NPRC) in 1995, using rhesus monkey cells, and again in 1996 with marmoset cells. Thomson then published his world-changing breakthrough on human embryonic stem cell derivation in Science Nov. 6, 1998.

From these early discoveries, stem cell research has advanced to human clinical trials for treating both age-related and juvenile macular degeneration, heart disease, blood and immune system cancers, skin wounds, hearing disorders, spinal cord injury, graft-versus-host disease and more. Just as Thomson predicted in the 1990s, NHPs, which were instrumental to basic stem cell research 25 years ago, are now in demand for a wealth of preclinical studies necessary before human clinical trials can begin.

Thanks to advances in pluripotent stem cell research and also gene-editing, researchers are also making progress in understanding the underlying causes of Parkinson’s disease, diabetes, pregnancy disorders, sickle-cell anemia, autoimmune diseases, cartilage regeneration and much more. Universities and medical institutions today have well-established stem cell and regenerative medicine centers to help bring researchers and resources together to advance the field and educate the next generation of stem cell scientists, doctors, educators, business people and policy makers.

The main uses of stem cells today include basic research to understand the human body, discovering the genetic origins of disease, growing new cells and tissues for transplant medicine, and growing cells and tissues for testing pharmaceuticals in the lab before animal and human trials begin. Stem cell research is helping animals, too. Pets as well as research animals at the NPRCs naturally get cancer, diabetes, arthritis and other diseases that stem cell therapies may be able to treat.

It’s important to make sure therapies are based on well-designed and thorough clinical trials. The Federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently cracked down on a number of rogue stem cell clinics that have offered untested, unapproved and even potentially dangerous medical interventions. Only a licensed physician with a patient under his or her direct care should recommend any stem cell therapy or other medical treatment.

Thanks to stem cell research breakthroughs pioneered at the NPRCs – and advanced by many researchers and doctors who have joined the field since – we are finally unraveling the mysteries of cell biology from early development through aging as never before. Read more here.

September 28, 2020

The seven National Primate Research Centers (NPRCs) are participating in SciFest All Access 2020. This is the virtual answer to the postponed USA Science & Engineering Festival, which is recognized as the nation’s top science and engineering festival for K-12 students, college students, educators and families. Happening now through Oct. 3, registered participants can visit the NPRCs in the “Exhibit Portal, Health & Medicine Zone II.”

The NPRC booth includes links to NPRC.org, our collective website, as well as individual web pages for the seven centers. All pages are filled with educational resources and links to help you learn more about our research, the scientific advancements we’re making and the care we provide our research animals. Direct access links to these seven pages are provided below.

NPRC representatives will be “on site” at SciFest All Access answering questions registered participants submit via the “Ask a Question” link in the booth. We’re also answering questions participants email us at nprcoutreach@gmail.com.

You can learn even more about the NPRCs’ research to improve human and animal health by visiting NPRC.org and following us on Twitter at @NPRCnews.

We look forward to joining thousands of students, educators and families at this year’s SciFest All Access!

SciFest All Access NPRC Web Pages

California NPRC

Oregon NPRC

Southwest NPRC

Tulane NPRC

Washington NPRC

Wisconsin NPRC

Yerkes NPRC

September 8, 2020

The Wisconsin National Primate Research Center (WiNPRC) has launched the newly improved Primate Info Net (PIN). The website provides resources for anyone interested in nonhuman primates.

Some of PIN’s most prominent features include primates in the news, educational resources, such as the always popular primate species fact sheets, informational services and research resources. Whether looking for a few nonhuman primate facts or more detailed information, PIN can provide the guidance you need.

Other features on the improved site include Ask Primate and the Career Center. Ask Primate allows anyone to inquire about any primate or primatology topic. The Career Center facilitates exploration of jobs and volunteer opportunities in primatology, as well as career guidance from scientists.

“We hope the relaunch of PIN will make learning about primates an enjoyable and informative experience,” says Jordana Lenon, Senior Editor, at WiNPRC. “We encourage you to explore the new PIN and to contact us with any questions about this updated resource. We hope you’re as excited as we are about PIN’s return!”

April 19, 2019

Forty years ago today, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) banned commercially manufactured polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), acting on evidence of their extreme environmental persistence and toxicity.

Five years before the April 19, 1979, ban, New Scientist published “US losing fight against PCBs – a new cancer risk?”, referencing its 1973 article by Allen and Norback (Vol. 57, p. 289) about changes in nonhuman primates at the Wisconsin Regional Primate Research Center exposed to PCBs.

“As far as the monkeys are concerned, the potential of PCB carcinogenicity is there,” senior author James Allen of the center’s experimental pathology unit stated in the article.

These early research findings were also described in the Summer 1973 issue of Primate Record, the Wisconsin center’s newsletter at the time. The narrative describes how three months of exposure to PCBs at 300 parts per million (ppm) in the animals’ diets resulted in liver enlargement, facial swelling, hair loss and gastritis of the type associated with cancer.

By that time, industrial accidents had at least twice contaminated human food supplies with up to 3,000 parts per million of PCBs. Levels of 28 ppm in milk and 35 ppm in certain fish had also been reported. In previous PCB studies with rats, liver enlargement was the only major reaction.

Quoting Allen, the final paragraph of the newsletter reads, “The discrepancy in clinical findings between the rat and monkey subjects in PCB tests again points to the inadequacy of testing drugs and chemicals only on organisms distantly related to man before certifying them as safe for humans…”

In 1975, the EPA cited the Wisconsin Primate Center team’s findings at its National Conference on Polychlorinated Biphenyls in Chicago. And in 1978, a paper by James Allen et al, published in Pharmacology Biochemistry and Behavior, fully described the toxic effects of PCBs on nonhuman primate health and pregnancy.

While no single study led to the landmark ban, several peer-reviewed studies like the monkey study contributed to the building body of evidence that PCBs cause cancer and other serious health problems. Today, these harmful chemicals are no longer produced in the United States.

Pictured above are PCB cleanup operations on Wisconsin’s Fox River circa 1989.

Photo credit: Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources

January 7, 2019

In August 2018, Texas Biomedical Research Institute President and CEO Larry Schlesinger, MD named Deepak Kaushal, PhD, the new Director of the Southwest National Primate Research Center (SNPRC).

Dr. Kaushal joined SNPRC in January 2019, succeeding the retiring Robert Lanford, PhD As Director of SNPRC, Dr. Kaushal will be responsible for leading a national scientific resource funded by a $40 million National Institutes of Health grant and a team of nearly 150 scientists, veterinarians and animal care professionals.

Dr. Kaushal joins SNPRC after his tenure as Director of the Center for Tuberculosis Research within the Tulane National Primate Research Center (TNPRC) in Covington, La., and Professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at Tulane University School of Medicine in New Orleans.

“We are excited Dr. Kaushal will be joining the Texas Biomed and SNPRC team,” Dr. Schlesinger said. “He is a world-renowned researcher whose focus in tuberculosis and HIV, specifically using nonhuman primates in TB research, is a natural fit with the Institute’s long-term vision of becoming the world leader in infectious disease research.”

Dr. Kaushal brings more than 25 years of experience working to eradicate tuberculosis, which kills more than two million people worldwide each year. Using the macaque nonhuman primate model, Dr. Kaushal’s lab tests new vaccine candidates and new drugs against the disease. A major focus of his research is to study the synergy between TB and HIV-AIDS.

“The opportunity to work in San Antonio is tremendous,” Dr. Kaushal said. “The community has a strong health science center and medical school, a network of higher education that fuels the engine of a research enterprise, strong non-profit organizations such as the Southwest Research Institute and is a vibrant, multicultural city. This is a place where technology, industry and supported research in infectious diseases can grow.”

A Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation supported researcher, Dr. Kaushal brings a portfolio of about $25 million in grant funding to SNPRC and Texas Biomed. He has authored more than 94 journal publications that have been published, are in press, in review or in revision and has presented at more than 66 scientific conferences worldwide.

He holds a PhD in biochemistry and microbiology from the University of Delhi in India and is a member of the Infectious Diseases Society of America, the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Collaboration for TB Vaccine Discovery (CTVD), the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation working group on Nonhuman Primate Models and the AIDS Clinical Trials Group (ACTG).

November 6, 2018

November 6, 2018 marks the 20th anniversary of the seminal paper “Embryonic stem cell lines derived from human blastocysts,” published in Science. The paper documented a breakthrough that occurred when University of Wisconsin-Madison and WiNPRC scientist James Thomson, VMD, PhD, developed a technique to successfully isolate and culture human embryonic stem cells from patient-donated, lab-fertilized embryos.

Thomson was successful again in 2007 when he became the first to grow induced pluripotent stem cells. Induced pluripotent stem cells behave similarly to embryonic stem cells with their source being genetically reprogrammed mature cells, such as skin cells. Thomson derived this type of cell with WiNPRC scientist Junying Yu, publishing again in Science.

Scientists predicted both of these cell types could someday be useful for drug discovery and transplant medicine. Today, those predictions are coming true.

Embryonic and induced pluripotent stem cells can become virtually any cell in the body. Scientists and doctors study these cells and their derivatives to learn more about basic biology and genetic origins of disease. They also use them for cell, tissue and organ transplant studies, as well as for pharmaceutical testing and studying the effects of environmental toxins on human cells and tissues.

Both types of stem cells, which Thomson and other NPRC scientists advanced from rodents to nonhuman primates and then to humans in the 1990s, are already in early clinical trials for macular degeneration, spinal cord injury, heart disease, ALS and more. There are currently 27 clinical trials around the world involving embryonic stem cells and their derivatives. Another 42 trials involve the use of induced pluripotent stem cells.

These discoveries underscore the importance of basic science and are excellent examples of how basic science can lead to applied science, clinical trials, entrepreneurship and expanding business and industry. Globally, the market for products related to stem cell discoveries is projected to reach more than $270.5 billion by 2025, according to a 2017 Transparency Market Research report.

A whole new era of science and medicine sprung from those early 1990s discoveries with nonhuman primates. The NPRCs continue to advance research in both human and nonhuman primates involving embryonic stem cells, induced pluripotent stem cells, tissue-specific (adult) stem cells and gene editing of both stem cells and mature cells. We look forward to the cell and regenerative medicine discoveries that are still to come!

 

August 30, 2018

Dr. Nancy Haigwood, director of the Oregon National Primate Research Center, discusses the launch of nprc.org, the public-facing website of the seven National Primate Research Centers, in this podcast from Oregon Health and Science University. The website’s goal, she says, is to give the general public information about research at the NPRCs that is “helping humans live longer, healthier lives.”

July 2, 2018

Researchers from the seven National Primate Research Centers have joined six Nobel Laureates and a growing contingent of America’s scientific community in signing a letter that acknowledges the importance of animal research as well as transparency. The letter calls upon “our country’s research institutions – large and small – to embrace openness. We should proudly explain how animals are used for the advancement of science and medicine, in the interest of the health and wellbeing of humans and animals.

“We fully support the goal of helping the public understand and trust the research process,” says John Morrison, PhD, director of the California National Primate Research Center. “All seven NPRCs engage in community and educational outreach to provide information about our research as well as the care of our animals.”

USA Today printed the letter and signatures June 20.

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