Top 10 Research Accomplishments at the NPRCs

The National Primate Research Centers (NPRCs) have played a crucial role in some of the most important medical breakthroughs of the past 50 years. NPRC research with nonhuman primates (NHPs) is highly regulated, provides unique insights not available with other models and often precedes clinical trials in humans. This list highlights 10 of the most significant, recent NHP research breakthroughs that are helping people across generations and the world live longer, healthier lives.

  1. COVID-19 – The emergence of SARS-CoV-2 in 2019 was one of the greatest public health crises in American history, and NPRC researchers were crucial in the effort to address it. Results from NHP studies on transmission routes, pathogenicity and genetics of the virus, in addition to decades of research on other mRNA viruses, such as HIV, informed the design of human clinical trials and the safe and effective vaccines we have today. Furthermore, the two lead vaccines that have been given to tens of millions of U.S. nationals were both tested in nonhuman primates for safety, immunogenicity and efficacy, including one (Pfizer) at an NPRC (the Southwest NPRC). Several next generation vaccine candidates and therapeutics are currently being pre-clinically tested at different NPRCs.
  2. HIV/AIDS – The emergence of HIV/AIDS in the early 1980s was one of the greatest public health crises in American history, and NPRC researchers were crucial in the effort to address it. Results from NHP studies on the ability of pre-exposure dosing of antiretroviral medicines to prevent infection with SIV or SHIV (the primate versions of HIV) informed the design of subsequent human clinical trials, which provided clear evidence that such pre-exposure dosing was effective in preventing infection.
  3. Emerging Infectious Diseases – One of the most potent viruses to infect humans, Ebola is intensely studied by infectious disease researchers who work with NHP models to develop preventive vaccines and novel therapies. The disease course in macaques and marmosets is very similar to that in humans, and new vaccines and therapies have been tested in these animals. When Zika was identified in Brazil in 2015 and associated with severe birth defects, the infectious disease expertise of NPRC researchers was at the forefront of the scientific community’s response and early understanding of the disease’s pathology. Researchers are also working to 1) identify antiviral drugs that are effective against Zika in lab cultures and then test these drugs in NHPs; and 2) determine if and how Zika infection in pregnant animals results in defects of the fetal central nervous system.
  4. Tuberculosis – TB kills approximately 2 million human beings each year. NPRC researchers have developed robust NHP models of the various presentations of the human TB syndrome, including those that permit the evaluation of the pathological granuloma, TB latency, TB/HIV co-infection and novel vaccine and therapeutic candidates, some of which are advancing to human trials.
  5. Parkinson’s disease – Parkinson’s disease is a progressive neurodegenerative disorder that produces motor symptoms, such as tremor, walking difficulty and muscle stiffness, as well as many non-motor problems. NHP research led to an innovative surgical procedure called deep brain stimulation (DBS), which uses an implanted, battery-operated device to deliver electrical stimulation to specific brain areas that control movement. This blocks the abnormal nerve signals that cause the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. NHP research also contributed to the development of autologous stem cells as a potential therapy for Parkinson’s and other neurodegenerative diseases. In 2007, researchers transformed skin cells from humans and monkeys into induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells, and subsequently transformed the monkey iPS cells into dopamine neurons. Because transplanted neurons are able to differentiate into multiple different neural cell types and provide long-term increases in dopamine-producing neurons, such cells can be used to partially restore motor function in people who have Parkinson’s disease.
  6. Brain-machine interfaces – This therapy combines neural recordings, computer representations of movement and robotics to allow monkeys and humans to manipulate their environments without the use of their arms. This research, which is dependent on NHPs, holds great promise for people who are paralyzed or who have suffered brain damage from stroke. Researchers have developed a brain-machine interface that enables monkeys to control robot arms with brain activity coded through a computer.
  7. Huntington’s disease – Although the genetic defect responsible for this neurodegenerative disease is well known, the specific mechanisms by which the mutation induces the condition are not as well understood. NPRC researchers have developed a transgenic NHP model of Huntington’s disease by introducing a portion of the mutant human gene responsible for Huntington’s into fertilized macaque eggs. The result is transgenic animals that reproduce many of the key features of Huntington’s disease.
  8. Stem cell research – This pioneering discovery, which NPRC scientists advanced from rodents to NHPs and then into humans in the 1990s, is already in early human clinical trials for macular degeneration, spinal cord injury, heart disease, ALS and more. There are approx. 30 clinical trials around the world involving embryonic stem cells and their derivatives. At least 40 trials involve the use of induced pluripotent stem cells. Pluripotent stem cell research has ushered in a new era of science and medicine that is dramatically expanding our options for pursuing cures and treatments.
  9. Transplantation – NPRC researchers have developed a novel approach to suppressing immune responses to kidney transplants. The technique involves creating a fusion protein of a molecule that is involved in the stimulation of T cells, which sometimes reject transplanted tissue. This research paved the way for successful human clinical trials and FDA approval of belatacept, the first new transplant drug since 1999.
  10. Mitochondrial disease – No treatment or preventive measures exist for this group of devastating human disorders, which present shortly after birth and can affect multiple organ systems to cause diabetes, deafness, blindness, dementia or epilepsy. Mitochondrial replacement therapy, or correcting dysfunctional mitochondria in the egg of a woman who previously delivered a child with mitochondrial disease, offers her the chance to have a typically developing child. NPRC researchers were the first to establish this process in NHPs by demonstrating the feasibility of replacing mitochondrial DNA in an egg with donor mitochondria from another egg, followed by in vitro fertilization and the development of typically developing offspring.

Updated February 2022

Photo credit: Wisconsin National Primate Research Center