The U.S. Is Running Out of Research Monkeys

From a Wall Street Journal story by Nidhi Subbaraman titled “The U.S. Is Running Out of Research Monkeys”:

America’s monkey shortage is getting worse. The pandemic has exacerbated a continuing supply crunch, throttling research and threatening the country’s ability to respond to public health disasters, including the next pandemic.

That is according to a new report published Thursday by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine that noted that new ways of studying biology, using artificial-intelligence models or cells in culture, aren’t ready to replace testing in monkeys.

“At this point in time [monkeys] continue to be essential models in biomedical research,” said Kenneth Ramos, a physician-scientist at Texas A&M University System and chair of the committee that wrote the report. The National Academies is an independent scientific group that provides advice to the federal government.

A lack of funding to expand breeding colonies at U.S. centers, as demand for research monkeys grew, is a leading contributor to the shortfall. Federal funding to national primate centers dipped by 23% over the past decade, according to the new report.

A continuing shortage would leave the U.S. vulnerable to infectious-disease outbreaks because monkeys are usually necessary to test new vaccines and treatments, scientists say. Macaques played an important role in the testing of vaccines during the Covid-19 pandemic. Investigations into a range of conditions, from infertility to Parkinson’s, would stall.

There were more than 113,500 monkeys captive for research in the U.S. in 2021, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which monitors the treatment of research animals. But the National Institutes of Health, which fund breeding and upkeep of monkeys at national primate research centers and a handful of universities, don’t comprehensively track how monkeys are used in research the agency funds, the report said. This leaves the agency unable to efficiently use the animals that are available, or to address the shortage. “There is a need for a national plan,” Dr. Ramos said.

An NIH spokeswoman said the agency is “eager to review the [report] conclusions and recommendations in detail to determine next steps.”

Monkeys are close biological relatives to humans, sharing genetics, behavioral hardwiring, and brain and body biology. Neuroscientists have used African green monkeys and baboons to study the brain, while pigtailed and rhesus macaques have offered insights into Covid-19 and other infectious diseases. Vaccines and drugs are tested in monkeys before tests in people.

Scientists started feeling the pinch around 2014 as infectious-disease researchers, developmental biologists and neuroscientists, among others, used more monkeys in experiments.

“There has been an increased recognition of the importance of these models in biomedical research,” said Jon Hennebold, a reproductive and developmental biologist at ​​Oregon Health & Science University and interim director of the Oregon National Primate Research Center, who wasn’t involved with the report.

A 2018 NIH report warned that demand for monkeys would continue to rise, and recommended more funding to breed more animals. During the pandemic, China, an important exporter of cynomolgus monkeys, stopped exporting research animals just as scientists needed even more monkeys for Covid-19 studies.

The current crisis is the result of a “perfect storm” of events, said Paul Johnson, an immunologist who studies HIV and is director of the Emory National Primate Research Center, and wasn’t involved in the report. “We turn away a number of people from our primate center with good ideas,” he said, because they aren’t able to supply animals. In 2021, across the primate research centers, two-thirds of requests for macaques that had never been used in research were denied, the report said.

Meanwhile, the price of research monkeys has skyrocketed, with researchers burning through their budget to buy animals. Thomas Geisbert, a virologist who studies infectious diseases such as Ebola and Marburg at The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, said a cynomolgus monkey cost about $5,000 from commercial vendors before the pandemic, but he now pays about $35,000.

Animal groups have campaigned against the use of animals in research, and some bioethicists have argued that the very similarity that makes monkeys attractive research models underscores the case for limiting experiments. In the U.S., the 1966 Animal Welfare Act and a handful of agency policies guide the treatment and housing of research animals in the U.S., including monkeys for research.

In part as an answer, new ways of studying biology have emerged. Machine-learning algorithms trained on biological data troves can simulate the chaos and complexity of chemical reactions in natural systems, and aid in drug discovery. Stem cells have been grown into specialized tissue as simple replicas of organs. For example, the National Academies report pointed out, studies of Zika virus infecting clumps of lab-grown brain cells helped the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention conclude that the virus caused the characteristic shrunken heads and brain damage in infants born to mothers who had the virus.

The report didn’t specify how much the U.S. government should spend to expand breeding colonies or increase staff. Dr. Johnson estimated that it would take an investment of hundreds of millions of dollars over the next five years to address demand.

Because monkeys don’t breed until they are four years old, Dr. Johnson said that investments now would yield a supply bump a decade from now. “There is a long timeline involved.”

Nidhi Subbaraman is a science reporter for The Wall Street Journal. Her interests include geology, oceanography and climate science.

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