August 15, 2022

Interview with the Director: The importance of the Washington National Primate Research Center by Chris Petkov & Renee Hartig

The following article was originally posted to the Speaking of Research website June 27, 2022.

Primate neuroscience research has been a bedrock of scientific discoveries on how the brain works. This has led to scientific breakthroughs and discoveries to advance treatments for Parkinson’s disease and many other disorders, including clinical depression and blindness. Primate research has also been critical for advancing vaccines to fight COVID-19. Despite these advances, a couple of former scientists are calling for an end to animal research.

Shouldn’t former scientists know the societal benefits that animal research brings?

In the USA, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) supports seven National Primate Research Centers (NPRCs), distributed across the country. As we can see by this investment, the NIH strongly values primate research, recognizing its vital role in scientific and biomedical advances. These advances benefit everyone, including those opposed to animal research.

The Washington National Primate Research Center (WaNPRC) is one of these seven sites, and it recently obtained a new director who we were keen to speak with.

Speaking of Research interviewed Professor Michele A. Basso, the new director of WaNPRC to hear her vision for primate research at the Center and across the United States.

Professor Basso, thank you for taking the time to speak with us. You recently took on the exciting, though also very challenging, role of Director at the WaNPRC. Could you tell us why you decided to take on this role?

Yes, thank you, I’m delighted to be speaking with you. I’m so proud of the work done at the WaNPRC and would love to share with you why I chose to take on this key leadership role.

As Director of one of the 7 National Primate Research Centers (NPRCs) in the US – I have an opportunity to serve the scientific community and the public locally, nationally and internationally. I want to help young and seasoned scientists, veterinarians, behavioral specialists, and other technical staff be successful. I want to help solve some of the most important questions that affect the health and well-being of people around the globe, and I want to be part of a community that advances scientific knowledge and medical breakthroughs.

WaNPRC has a long history of contributions to scientific knowledge and medical breakthroughs. Now as Director, working with amazing people, I have an opportunity to be part of that tradition and expand my contributions.

Why does the US have publicly-funded NPRCs?

Congress appropriated funds in 1960 to establish national primate centers, now referred to as the National Primate Research Centers (NPRCs), because Congress members realized the critical importance of providing scientists across the nation with specialized resources to conduct research with nonhuman primates.

Then, as is still true today, it is not possible to get the data we need to understand aspects of human biology by using computer models alone, or even research using animals with less sophisticated biology or behavior. It is impossible to overstate the importance of nonhuman primate research in helping us address the key health challenges faced by people around the world.

The NPRCs provide the vital infrastructure and the scientific, clinical and behavioral expertise needed to work with these animals to help us combat international health crises, including diseases such as Zika and Malaria, tuberculosis and most recently, COVID-19. In addition, the Centers help us understand and treat issues faced by millions of people around the world, including fertility and disorders of the reproductive system, cardiovascular disease and stroke, spinal cord injury, blinding diseases such as macular degeneration and other age-related neurodegenerative diseases including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. Given the number of people suffering with diseases that we cannot fully understand without the work performed at the NPRCs and elsewhere, I believe we have a moral imperative to do this work.

The public has and continues to have a huge interest in advances that can only come as a result of biomedical research with nonhuman primates. Because of the importance of this work, the federal government has continued to support the NPRCs for 60 years – we just celebrated our 60th anniversary. We at WaNPRC are also celebrating the successful renewal of our P51 Center award for another 5 years.

When you speak to the public, how do you explain the value and importance of primate research?

I am a first-generation college graduate with an immigrant Italian working-class background. For as long as I can remember, it’s been important to me to be able to explain to the people I love what I do and why I do it. After all, they sacrificed for me to be able to do science and their tax dollars are funding the work. I learned very early on the importance of being able to explain my work to those without a background in science, which is just as important to me as being able to explain my work within the scientific community.

There is so much about biology that we still don’t understand – even basic things – why do some vaccines require multiple boosters and others do not? Why do certain brain cells die in some diseases and others do not? So many of these questions remain a mystery to us but the answers hold the key to alleviating human and other animal suffering.

Monkeys are important because some of their biology (aspects of the immune system, reproductive system and brain) is more similar to ours than other animal models. While there is much we can and do learn from computer models and animals that are farther removed from humans, we encounter many scientific questions that can only be answered through work with nonhuman primates.

For example, the development of the COVID-19 vaccine required work in monkeys. Mice do not have the receptor on their cells that the virus sticks to – so the rodents had to be genetically manipulated to express that receptor to study COVID-19 infection. Monkeys, like humans, have the receptor, so the virus could be studied directly in the monkeys and more precisely and more rapidly than in rodents.

There are many myths about scientists, and science, some of which likely result from media and the movies, but even more so now in today’s world of chronic misinformation. One common myth that I often think about is how people think that in the lab we scientists say ‘eureka!’ and there’s a new discovery – nothing could be further from the truth. Scientists must work methodically, day in and day out – it is hard work and progress is frequently only made after a long list of failures. I think the public understanding of how science works fails to capture that truth – that we actually depend on failure to be successful and make progress. And I believe it is important to dispel myths about science and the use of animals in scientific research. I believe that talking to people helps dispel those myths.

We saw this dramatically unfold in the development of the mRNA vaccine for COVID-19—that vaccine was reported to have been developed in record time, but in truth the COVID-19 vaccine was developed as a result of many years of deliberate and careful research using animal models, and especially monkeys.

What is your vision for the WaNPRC going forwards and how do you plan to deliver on it?

The mission of the WaNPRC is to empower the delivery of leading-edge scientific discoveries to improve human health, while promoting the highest standards of care, health, well-being and conservation for primates around the world.

We are an organization made up of over 150 scientists, animal husbandry and care specialists, behavior management specialists, veterinarians, administrative staff and senior leadership. We work to support the efforts of over 400 scientists locally at the University of Washington and across the greater Seattle area, the United States and Europe. The first thing I want to do is to get that message out. Historically, those of us who worked with monkeys remained hidden, and many still do out of fear—fear of bullying and harassment or worse, from anti-animal research individuals or groups. These individuals try to take scientists hostage—silence them, terrorize them and make it impossible for them to help address health crises.

I have been outspoken for a long time now, publicly since around 2006 when I testified at the 109th Congress on behalf of the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act. I remain committed to the idea that if we speak out, we are safer – because when people understand what we do and why we do it, they side with the scientists vs. the terrorists, because they want to see the medical advances primate researchers are able to provide, and they come to learn what exactly that entails. They also come to understand that our animals get outstanding, compassionate care! They have experts caring for them 365 days a year — more care than most humans receive! So, I want to broadcast our work to let people know about our many successes and contributions, and equally importantly to know how much we too love these animals, and how they get the best care possible from a large team of superbly trained and skilled professionals.

Because of the expertise we have at WaNPRC, I also want to get the message out to other institutions, including other institutions with small monkey footprints looking to WaNPRC for support. I want them to know that we are here to help them to ensure that they have the necessary expertise and support.

My vision is for WaNPRC to become the national beacon for other institutions to allow them to build, support and be comfortable engaging in this critical work. 

I am very fortunate to be working with an amazing team of scientists, veterinarians and care staff and primatologists. Our Associate Director of Research, Dr. Deb Fuller, an infectious disease expert, is spearheading a new program focused on Valley Fever. Valley Fever (VF) is a disease with symptoms that remarkably, resemble COVID symptoms, but VF is not a virus.  People and their animal companions become infected with VF by inhaling the fungal spores that live in soil. VF is endemic to arid communities largely in the Americas and is even spreading to the Pacific Northwest because of climate change. We have a colony of macaque monkeys in Arizona that will play an important role in the development of this vaccine and new diagnostics for VF disease. This includes defining mechanisms of the disease, identifying new immunogens to maximize efficacy of our vaccine and development of new tests for diagnosing the disease in humans and animals. Since VF affects animals too, we have a vigorous monitoring, screening and treatment program should any of our animals be exposed to VF, to ensure they remain healthy and suitable for research projects. Dr. Fuller’s focus will be to use the mRNA technology that was used for some COVID vaccines, to develop a vaccine for VF.

A unique program that we have at WaNPRC, is the Global Conservation, Education and Outreach Program, led by Dr. Randy Kyes. I am very excited about this program not only for its work in the conservation space that is performed with our global partners, but also because of the science that Dr. Kyes and his colleagues perform – they are very interested in understanding animal-human and animal-animal disease transmission. This work is foundational for our country’s pandemic preparedness moving forward. Dr Kyes and I are planning to grow this program and continue our initiatives in One Health.

WaNPRC also has a strong and growing Neuroscience Unit of Scientific Excellence as well. One aspect of this program that we are developing is ex vivo recording of neuronal activity to address critical questions about brain circuit function. These novel procedures allow us to make cell cultures and collect data for long periods of time, as long as 2-3 weeks. Establishing this work at the Center reflects our strong commitment to the 3Rs ethical principle of animals in research – one of which is to Reduce animal use whenever possible. Now we can ask many questions of these preserved cell cultures instead of using animals. Our commitment to Replacing (another of the 3Rs) the use of animals in research whenever possible is deep.

What are some of the biggest challenges that face science in the US and internationally?

I would first say that despite the challenges, the importance of this work to the health and wellbeing of people around the world cannot be overstated.

I don’t know whether I would put this list in any order – in my mind they each have equivalent weight in terms of their potential impact on the future of science. From a safety perspective, the first is addressing the onslaught of bullying and harassment stemming from anti-animal research organizations targeting our scientists and animal care workers and staff, who work tirelessly to perform and support great science and to take exemplary care of our animals. The bullying and harassment from these organizations is unacceptable. We all have an obligation to make it a safe environment for scientists, animal technicians and veterinarians.

The campaigns against science also extend to the public and to our policy and lawmakers. This in my view is potentially catastrophic, as anti-animal research organizations are convincing unwitting people that what we do is wrong – when in fact it is the foundation of every major medical advance of the last and current centuries – including and especially our recent ability to have vaccines curbing a global pandemic.

Another major concern that I imagine most people don’t realize, is that like many things, we rely on China for a large portion of our animal imports for research purposes.  However, China recently stopped all imports of research animals to the US. Europe and Canada are also experiencing this roadblock. The lack of imports, together with the fact that our NPRCs have had flat or decreasing budgets from NIH and Congress for the last many years, have left us now in a significant lurch.

This is the first time in history that I am aware that the US is facing the very real possibility that we will no longer be leaders in medical and scientific discoveries. This is very sad to me but is also entirely reversible if we all act now to preserve the primate research capabilities of the United States of America.

As we learn more about how to optimize the care of our animals and ensure the strongest science possible, we are committed to modifying our housing enclosures to more closely simulate the natural environment. This will take resources and significant monetary investments from NIH and Congress. This is an important part of my vision for the WaNPRC going forward.

Some former scientists, now turned activists, are questioning the importance of primate neuroscience and the role of the NPRCs. Some of these activists, including an individual that worked briefly at WaNPRC, in a recent Guardian article, seem to be quite proud of now working for PETA, we quote: “One of the things I take probably undue pleasure in is that you really can’t tell Peta no,” she says. “If you do, Peta will draft a lawsuit and drop it on your doorstep. They’ll put together a TV ad and start running it.” Once the organization takes on an issue, its commitment is absolute. For Lisa Jones-Engel, that’s worth letting go of the prestige, the adrenaline and the other trappings of her former calling. She’s making peace with the idea that she can never go back now.”

How do you address their critiques about your role and that of the NPRCs from folks that unfortunately seem to be being used because of their previous status as scientists, as the quote states?

This is a very revealing quote as were several other comments in the article.

We waste enormous amounts of time and thus taxpayer money dealing with frivolous lawsuits and records requests made by the anti-animal research organizations, purposely designed not to ‘educate the public’ as they claim but to keep us away from our important work of caring for animals and indirectly, people.

I am a neuroscientist and not a mind reader, so I would never pretend to understand, without direct knowledge, what motivates anyone, including former scientists, to do what they choose to do. What I do know based on fact, however, is that an individual used to perform research with monkeys here at WaNPRC and unfortunately had a failed research program. This happened before my time at WaNPRC. I do know that it is the responsibility of the Director to ensure good stewardship of Center resources and see that primate research is advancing science, in part, because financial resources come from the US taxpayer. Decisions have to be made when scientific programs do not deliver on their objectives. I understand that this could lead to some hard feelings which may impact the decisions a person makes to engage with organizations that seem to be using them in ways that they do not seem to fully agree with but cannot escape, as the quote clearly states.

As for critiques of the Center, our accomplishments speak for themselves. And the whole of animal research as a field dedicated to public health, speaks for itself, but we need to regularly remind the public. I am hoping that we as scientists can get better about communicating these accomplishments. For example, I wonder how many people know that 93 Nobel prizes were awarded to scientists for discoveries that involved work with animals. And no fewer than 11 of these came from work with non-human primates, monkeys but also chimpanzees. As recently as 2020, the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine went to scientists who discovered the Hepatitis C virus in chimpanzees.

Another claim by activists is that primate research is conducted with poor or no animal welfare standards. How do you answer this criticism, often made by folks that have not done primate neuroscience for 40 or more years?

It is hard to know where to begin with criticisms of animal welfare, as it is so far from the reality of science and animal care today.

Research funded by the federal government that involves any vertebrate animal, is highly regulated by local, state and federal laws and guidelines. Before a project begins, researchers have to write a protocol outlining in detail what the animals will experience throughout their lifetime, and what the goals of the science are, including how the animals will be protected and cared for. The protocols are carefully scrutinized by other scientists, veterinarians and members of the general public, members of the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC for short). Once approved, the work and facilities are monitored regularly. Veterinarians provide regular oversight and support as well. Interestingly to the public, researchers are also required to justify anything they do scientifically, and even the particular animal species they select to work with. This is the only arena where the animal species has to be justified – why this particular model is required to answer the scientific question.

Our society uses animals in many ways, but unlike the strict guidelines in scientific research, commercial industries, such as clothing or food for example, do not have to provide the type of justification required of scientists. I find this interesting.

Some of the activists also suggest that scientists need to use their brains to find cures? Supposedly that means you don’t need to do anything to find cures for brain disorders other than through thought experiments, studying cultured tissue samples or conducting computational modeling to understand the brain. It may also mean that scientists just don’t use their brains to find cures, or are not motivated to do so because they just want to extend their careers for, as many activists argue, no good reason. What do you think is at the basis of statements like these and how do you respond to something like this?

This just doesn’t pass the logic test in my view. If we could do what we do without animals, of course we would do it!

Think about it for a minute – we maintain facilities that must meet standards outlined by the government and other oversight bodies, the spaces need specialized air handling and sanitation capabilities, we house live animals that require large amounts of real estate and 365 days a year care. We employ many people with specialized training and skills to feed and water and care for these animals who depend on us for their every need. This is a complicated endeavor and costs money, time and emotional investment. It would be MUCH easier and less costly if we could solve all the complexities of human biology on a computer chip! But you can’t program a chip to do things that you don’t yet understand.

Scientists are smart people, and they could make a heck of a lot more money much more easily on Wall Street than in science, but many choose science because like me they want to help people and other animals. So, the idea that we want to extend our careers for no good reason is just silly to me. Scientists are constantly using their brains individually and as a collective to find cures not possible without animal research.

Some critics claim that studies of rats and mice do not often enough lead to treatments for human diseases and thus all animal research should stop. How do you explain to the public why that simply is not true?

This is false and a complete non-sequitur. First, foundational science that is performed on animals is a necessary prerequisite for all treatments for humans and other animals. Foundational science, much of it performed in mice and rats, tells us about fundamental principles and basic biology. This is the pipeline of information that leads to the discovery of new treatment targets or drugs. Without that foundational knowledge we would not know where to look for possible treatments in the first place.

Second, mice have contributed to a number of discoveries leading to human treatments – immunologically-based cancer therapies, treatments for parasitic infections, and techniques related to monoclonal antibody formation to name a few, but there are limits in areas of biomedical science, to what we can learn from animals with less complex organs – such as the brain for example. Third, as scientists we select the animal model that is best suited to answer the question posed and as mentioned, strict regulations require us to justify that selection. Our models are selected based on the process that we are studying and for some processes – certain molecular, genetic processes for example, are shared among many species – rodents to humans.

There are processes that require an animal model that more closely resembles humans, such as the monkey. One example is higher mental function. There are areas of the brain that exist in primates that simply do not exist in rodents. The prefrontal cortex is an example – the region of the brain that controls executive function. In my opinion, one of the reasons we have not made as much progress as we would like on certain neuropsychiatric illnesses is because we lack good animal models of those processes, like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

If research with primates is less than 0.5% of all animals in research, why is this such a small but important segment of animal research?

For the reasons mentioned before this research is vastly important AND scientists follow ethical principles to ensure that they use the smallest number of primates to complete the work successfully. This is an extremely efficient line of work because primate research is so ethically sensitive and regulated. Also regulations may require that rodent studies are validated with primates before clinical trials in humans are conducted. For certain processes the primate model best reproduces the process in the human that we wish to understand. Whether it be a receptor for the COVID virus that mice do not possess but monkeys do, or the sophisticated cognitive behavior that monkeys have but rodents do not share, primate research can provide answers with very few numbers of primates being required.

WaNPRC has an Arizona facility that has been the subject of media reports and criticism about Valley Fever (VF). Why does WaNPRC have a segment in Arizona? What are the facts here?

We put an FAQ on our web site because the misinformation that was being spread about our WaNPRC was so egregious, so we made accurate information available. I won’t repeat all the accusations here, but suffice it to say that the accusations were unsubstantiated by the facts. Also, our facility is regularly inspected by the NIH Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare (OLAW) and the USDA and there were no findings.

We continue to remain in compliance with all laws and regulations.

As mentioned earlier, Valley Fever (VF) is endemic to arid locations and humans, companion animals, and our monkeys are susceptible to exposure given that they are in AZ and have enclosures with outdoor access. In fact, because of this, our colony will play an important role in the development of a vaccine and new diagnostics for VF. VF is a significant clinical and public health concern, including to the local tribal communities who live in this area. We work with the indigenous community on communication about VF.

Another topic on which there is quite a bit of scientific misinformation propagated by the activists is monkeypox. What is the issue here and what are the facts?

Monkeypox is a misleading name, and the WHO is committed to changing it. Monkeypox is an orthopox virus similar to smallpox, but it affects multiple animal species and is generally less severe than smallpox. There have been outbreaks of monkeypox associated with animal contact in Africa periodically over time. There was an outbreak of monkeypox in the United States in 2003 associated with pet prairie dogs imported from Ghana. The reason the current outbreak is newsworthy is because there is human-to-human spread.

Infrequent but regular monkeypox outbreaks have occurred starting in the late 1970s after the smallpox vaccine stopped being routinely administered (since smallpox vaccine provides protection from monkeypox). Most of these cases have been self-limiting and quickly isolated except the notable cases mentioned above.

The current monkeypox outbreak is believed to have originated from Western Africa based on genetic similarity. Speculation is that an individual who was infected (possibly via a rodent bite) traveled to Europe and exposed others at a MSM (men having sex with men) party. Thus, the outbreak that was first identified in Europe was initially primarily among MSM. A significant concern here is the potential for stigma, similar to early days of HIV infection, that the virus is a disease of MSM. Like HIV, monkeypox can transmit between anybody who has close contact.

Unlike COVID-19 (that can spread very efficiently in the air between people just standing in the same room or even after entering a room where someone was infected), transmission of monkeypox is not very efficient. It can spread via fomites (generated by sneezing, coughing or spitting while talking) but fomites don’t travel far so it requires very close face to face interaction or more often, direct contact with that person. It can also spread by contacting bedding/clothing of someone with ruptured pustules but generally the person touching these items will not get infected unless there is an open sore. As such, the CDC and WHO maintain that the risk of getting monkeypox is very low and overall, the number of cases, while rising, is expected to remain low and eventually peter out.

At present, it’s not known if this strain of monkeypox is actually sexually transmitted or if it’s just appearing more frequently among sexual contacts. However, it is recognized that the transmission pattern of this outbreak is different from previous outbreaks and studies are still underway to understand better what the mechanisms are.

Getting outbreaks under control is in progress and is generally very effective if implemented immediately. A number of local outbreaks have already been brought under control by these measures. It entails 3 major strategies: 1) identify and diagnose cases, 2) identify recent close contacts and quarantine them, 3) deploy the stockpiled licensed smallpox vaccine in a ring vaccination strategy – that is vaccinating close contacts and their close contacts to build a buffer of immunity around an outbreak (we now have a newer version that is safer and causes less reactions called Modified Vaccinia Ankara) such that those outside the “ring” are protected and the transmission is stopped.

What do you think that the animal research communities and the NIH could be doing better to get the message out about the importance of primate neuroscience?

Speak out! Talk about your research.

Tell people about the care the animals receive and your commitment to both animal care and scientific advance.

In my experience, people are unlikely to know all of the facts, and they want to understand the science. They are interested in the work, so they tend to be very eager to hear what you have to say and to discuss it with you.

That’s why it is so important to me to talk about the critical importance of animal research and the contributions it brings to benefit the health and well-being of us all—supporters and detractors alike.

How do you strike that work and life balance as you take on the role of director for such a vital national resource?

Yeah, I’ve always struggled a bit with this.

I’ve taken on this new role, and I still have my very active laboratory, so it’s a bit like having two jobs! I am exceptionally privileged to have a team of students, trainees and scientists with whom I work who are just amazing. WaNPRC has an equally amazing and talented team of veterinarians, animal care and behavioral trainers who are such a joy to work with.

And the monkeys, I’ve always loved working with them, so it really doesn’t feel like work to me.

Director Basso thank you for taking the time to talk to us at Speaking of Research. There is a substantial amount of scientific misinformation circulating, including now by former scientists turned anti-animal research activists.

It was wonderful to hear directly from you about the topic of primate science, your vision for the WaNPRC and its importance.

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