The National Primate Research Centers have played a crucial role in some of the most important medical breakthroughs of the past 50 years. Nonhuman primates (NHP) are the closest analogs to human physiology, and the research conducted by the NPRCs is often the final step before human clinical trials. This list highlights 10 of the most significant, recent NHP research breakthroughs.

  1. Zika – 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:
    • identify antiviral drugs that are effective against Zika in lab cultures and then test these drugs in nonhuman primate models; and
    • determine if and how Zika infection in pregnant animals results in defects of the fetal central nervous system.
  2. Ebola – One of the most potent viruses to infect humans, Ebola is the subject of intense study by researchers at the NPRCs and around the world with the goal of developing preventive vaccines and novel therapies. The disease course in macaques and marmosets is very similar to that in humans, and many vaccines and therapies have been tested in these animals, some of which have advanced to human trials.
  3. 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.
  4. Hepatitis – Hepatitis C virus (HCV) affects more than 3.5 million people in the U.S. and more than 170 million people worldwide. Chronic HCV infection frequently progresses to cirrhosis and liver cancer, which has a five-year survival rate of only 10%.  Intensive research efforts involving nonhuman primates have resulted in a cure for HCV infection.
  5. Parkinson’s disease (part. 1) – Parkinson’s is a progressive neurodegenerative disorder that produces motor alterations such as tremor, walking difficulty and muscle stiffness. One of the recent critical contributions of nonhuman primate research has been the development of an innovative surgical procedure called deep brain stimulation. DBS uses a surgically implanted, battery-operated medical device called an implantable pulse generator (IPG) – similar to a heart pacemaker and approximately the size of a stopwatch – to deliver electrical stimulation to specific areas in the brain that control movement, thus blocking the abnormal nerve signals that cause Parkinson’s symptoms.
  6. Parkinson’s disease (part. 2) – The use of autologous stem cells as therapy has potentially beneficial application for Parkinson’s and other neurodegenerative diseases. In 2007, researchers took skin cells from a person with Parkinson’s disease and coaxed them to become induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells.  Skin cells from monkeys have been transformed into iPS cells and subsequently into dopamine neurons. Transplanted neurons are able to differentiate into multiple different neural cell types, providing long-term increases in dopamine-producing neurons, resulting in partial restoration of motor functions.
  7. 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 nonhuman primates, 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.
  8. Huntington’s disease –Although the genetic defect responsible for this neurodegenrative 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 nonhuman primate model of the 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.
  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 normal child. NPRC researchers were the first to establish this process in nonhuman primates 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 normal offspring.

Photo credit: Wisconsin National Primate Research Center

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