Harvard 'Winding Down' Research Center Where Monkeys Died

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Harvard is winding down operations at its controversial primate research center where four monkeys died, according to Harvard Medical School and this report in The Boston Globe:

The Harvard primate research center where four monkeys died because of animal care problems will be largely shut down by 2015, Harvard Medical School announced Tuesday afternoon. The university cited a tough economic climate for biomedical research funding and shifting long-term strategic plans.

The announcement stunned outside researchers, because it comes a year and a half after Harvard began investing significant time and resources into the New England Primate Research Center in Southborough, to correct animal care and oversight problems that had resulted in the deaths of four monkeys between June 2010 and Feb. 2012.

From the Harvard Medical School news release:

Boston, MA (April 23, 2013)—Harvard Medical School announced today that it would wind down operations of the New England Primate Research Center (NEPRC) over the next 12 to 24 months rather than seek to renew a five-year federal grant to continue operating the Center, and indicated its leadership had begun to work with the National Institutes of Health (NIH) on a transition plan.

School leaders acknowledged that the decision to wind down operations of the NEPRC was extremely difficult in light of the groundbreaking research that has been conducted at the Center over the past 50 years. As they weighed whether to renew the base grant from the NIH, HMS leaders made a strategic decision based on a review of the long-term academic benefits and the financial cost of continuing to operate the NEPRC.

“Deciding how to best assign our limited resources is not unique to HMS,” said Jeffrey S. Flier, Dean of the Faculty of Medicine of Harvard University, “but this decision was made with a heavy heart.”

“I am personally committed to instituting a transition that embodies our tremendous respect and gratitude for the Center’s faculty and staff, and one that guarantees the welfare of all animals in our trust. I am also confident that we can achieve our research goals through collaboration with a vibrant national scientific community,” he said.

The NEPRC is one of eight National Primate Research Centers supported by the NIH. Harvard has informed NIH officials of its intentions, and they have begun working together to transition as much of the work of the NEPRC as possible to the other National Primate Research Centers.

Driving the decision was the fact that the external funding environment for scientific research has become increasingly challenging over the past decade. Recent funding pressures have added uncertainty to this already-challenging fiscal context. As Harvard Medical School leadership evaluated the long-term need to use its resources in the most effective manner across all of its missions, they came to the conclusion that winding down the operations of the NEPRC was more beneficial to the School than investing further resources in maintaining and renewing the NEPRC grant. NIH and the University have been supportive of this decision.
A comprehensive plan is being activated to support faculty and staff transition during the wind-down period of 12 to 24 months. The School intends to support the work of the staff, and to provide training and other opportunities. Among the plan’s priorities is a staffing strategy that will maintain a high level of care for the animals, ensuring that primates will not be adversely affected by the transition.

The School is also working with the NIH and members of the scientific community on a plan for an orderly transition of the NEPRC research programs, ensuring the migration takes place with the least possible disruption, and that the scientific work of the NEPRC is continued.

The primates will either be transitioned to other sites, including the other national primate research centers, or be managed at the NEPRC in accordance with approved protocols.

The decision to conclude NEPRC operations follows a two-year period during which the Centerleadership successfully addressed operating issues with input from the NIH and other governing agencies. The process resulted in new procedures that have significantly strengthened the Center’s day-to-day activities and that can serve as a model for other institutions throughout the country. Many of those changes carried additional costs, and HMS will continue to make investments in the Center to ensure ongoing compliance with all federal regulations.

The various research interests represented at the NEPRC are essential to the HMS mission and will continue to be advanced by the School. There is also no doubt that the use of primates in certain areas of research will remain an essential means through which critical knowledge will be developed now and in the future.

Flier said, “We are extremely proud of the contributions the NEPRC has made to improving human heath over the past nearly 50 years. We believe primate research is critical to the future of biomedical research and the effective development of lifesaving therapies. The Center’s research focus on HIV, infectious disease and vaccines will continue to be effectively pursued through scientific programs throughout HMS.”

Here are someexamples of important biomedical accomplishments made possible by NEPRC research with nonhuman primates:

First unambiguous evidence that AIDS is caused by a virus.
Discovery of simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV) and development of the first animal model of AIDS.
Original demonstration that vaccine protection against AIDS is possible.
Discovery of the oncogenic herpesvirus, Herpesvirus saimiri.
First nonhuman primate models of colon cancer and inflammatory bowel disease.
Evidence leading to the use of hydroxyurea to treat sickle cell anemia.
Discovery of stunned myocardium and its role in myocardial ischemia.
First animal model for progressive neurodegeneration in Parkinson’s disease.
Development of improved brain imaging techniques for early diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease.
Development of novel cellular and pharmacological strategies for treatment of Parkinson’s disease.

And here's a statement from Kathleen Conlee, vice president of animal research issues at The Humane Society of the United States:

The Humane Society of the United States is very pleased to hear about the significant development that Harvard University has decided to close the New England Primate Research Center by 2015. As an organization, we advocate for better investment of research dollars-moving away from the use of these highly intelligent animals is another step in that right direction. Our government should prioritize the development and use of alternative methods that will provide better, faster and more relevant results for human health--such as the organ-on-a-chip technology being developed at Harvard’s own Wyss Institute.

This program aired on April 23, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

Carey Goldberg Twitter Editor, CommonHealth
Carey Goldberg is the editor of WBUR's CommonHealth section.