From the ground, not much can be seen of the Tulane National Primate Research Center.
A standard green sign on U.S. 190 directs motorists down narrow Three Rivers Road south of Covington and past a couple of apartment complexes. There, pleasant landscaping and larger signs announce the primate center, but forbidding gates block access to narrow lanes disappearing into the piney woods.
But view the center using something like Google Earth, and it’s a different story. The full scope of the sprawling 500-acre complex is clear: Dozens of buildings form the main administrative and laboratory complex on the north side of Three Rivers Road, while the south side is laid out in a massive grid of cages that house enough monkeys to make the center the fourth largest municipality in St. Tammany Parish — if those monkeys were a different primate.
Normally preferring to remain low-key and unobtrusive, center officials found themselves thrust into the spotlight Feb. 7 when a hastily called Saturday evening news conference featured parish, state and federal officials talking about Burkholderia pseudomallei, the bacterium that causes melioidosis, or Whitmore’s disease.
Two monkeys at the center had been infected with the bacterium, which was supposed to be kept in strict quarantine in the center’s lab. Then, an investigator sent to look into the infection reported symptoms consistent with the disease and checked herself into a hospital. Of the two monkeys, one had to be euthanized; the other recovered.
A news release Friday said subsequent tests on the investigator indicated that she probably was not infected while at the Tulane center.
Although center and local officials said they believed the risk to the public from Burkholderia pseudomallei was negligible, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ordered the primate center to suspend all work with so-called “select agents” — those that could pose a significant risk to human or animal health — while the infections were investigated.
In addition, some public officials grumbled that center officials hadn’t kept them informed, and they vowed that things would be different in the future.
Those events all raised questions about the center — what sort of research is done there and why, and what the future of the facility may be.
Growing with the community
The National Primate Research Center is not a recent arrival on the north shore. The 500 acres of land for the center were purchased from the Alexius family in 1962 — in fact, the Alexius House, which dates to the early 19th century, still sits on the property just south of the Abita River.
After the land was purchased, the center opened in 1964 as the Delta Regional Primate Center in what was then mostly piney woods.
Even in its first few decades, research at the center stirred some controversy. In the mid-1980s, activists complained about monkeys at the center being spun at high rates of speed and having their vomiting rated in experiments that were part of the space program. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, concerns were raised over three monkeys that, as part of experiments on spinal cord injuries, had nerves cut that cost them the use of their arms and legs; their brains also were pierced with electrodes.
Those controversies did not slow the growth of the center, however. Like the community around it, the Tulane center has grown exponentially since 1964. Then, the area around the center was a largely undeveloped area known as Alexiusville. Now, though, the U.S. 190 corridor between Mandeville and Covington is a major thoroughfare. Northlake Christian School, which opened in 1978, is adjacent to the center. Three neighborhoods sit close by, as well.
Today, the Tulane center is part of a network of seven national primate centers spread across the country, each of which is largely funded by the National Institutes of Health. The centers provide facilities and support for scientists who wish to do work on nonhuman primates, according to Dr. John Harding, of the NIH.
The center operates as its own entity within Tulane University, but it is affiliated with Tulane’s health science schools, including the medical school, a spokesman said.
Growth at the center accelerated beginning in 2001, due to a growing awareness of the need for biodefense, the ability to deal with a possible bioterrorism attack, according to Andrew Lackner, the center’s director, who arrived that same year.
“The anthrax event in 2001 brought into focus that the U.S. had very little facilities that were capable of doing any work with those types of agents,” he said. “And it had very little in terms of people to do the work.”
Lackner attributed that mindset to one that originated earlier, a late-20th-century attitude that infectious diseases were a thing of the past due to the effectiveness of antibiotics.
But after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, infectious diseases rose to the forefront of the national consciousness, and the Tulane National Primate Research Center is at the center of research into those diseases, Lackner said. The center has large research programs on HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and Lyme disease, he said. It’s not all disease work, though; devising ways to counter potential bioterrorism threats is also part of the center’s work.
A November news release trumpeted research at the center on a ricin vaccine. Ricin — which can be found in castor oil plant seeds — is considered a leading bioterrorism threat, and even tiny doses of it can be deadly. In April 2013, two ricin-laced letters were discovered at mail-screening facilities in Washington, D.C., prompting fears of a widespread bioterrorism vulnerability.
The increased awareness of threats from disease and bioterrorism has been good for the center. Since 2001, it has undergone a $75 million expansion, quadrupled the amount of its external funding and doubled the number of employees, to about 300.
The center’s budget is about $30 million per year, the “vast majority” of which comes from the National Institutes of Health, Lackner said.
The rapid growth has, at times, made some of the neighbors uneasy.
In 2003, two dozen monkeys escaped. Most were lured back using a veritable delicacy for them: oranges. In 2005, a similar breakout involved more than 50 monkeys. Most were recaptured within a day or so.
A planned zoning change at the site in 2010 was fiercely opposed by some residents who live nearby. The new rules would have allowed 100-foot-tall buildings, which some neighbors felt would harm the value of their property. After working with members of the St. Tammany Parish Council and local residents, the center agreed to limit buildings that tall to sites set back at least 250 feet from the center’s property line.
Some residents also complained at the time about smells from the cages, but a Department of Environmental Quality inspection revealed no significant odor issues.
In 2004, Lackner helped form the Community Focus Group, a board made up of government, business, educational and medicine leaders, as well as representatives of the three nearby neighborhoods. The group’s stated objectives are to help center officials communicate and relate to the community, to provide a means for accurate information about the center to be disseminated and to provide a forum for public input.
But the Community Focus Group was not notified about the monkeys’ infection with Burkholderia pseudomallei until Jan. 17 — after a reporter asked parish officials about it and parish officials in turn asked the center — which caused some to wonder why the focus group wasn’t informed earlier.
Tulane officials said they were convinced there was no threat to public health resulting from the potential release of the bacterium, which is transmitted through direct contact.
At the heart of the work at the Primate Research Center are the monkeys: roughly 5,000 of them, of which about 4,000 form what is called the center’s “breeding colony.”
Monkeys in the breeding colony live in cages set up on the property, often in family groups. They are charged with staying healthy and reproducing so that the scientists at the center have a steady stream of healthy animals on which to conduct their research.
Most of the monkeys are rhesus macaques, but the center also has pigtail macaques, cynomolgus macaques and smaller populations of several other types of monkeys, including baboons and squirrel monkeys.
The research at the cent and other facilites like it is vital, the NIH's Harding said.
A center like Tulane’s “has all the animals, veterinarians, core labs to support an investigator from the outside that wants to do research,” he said. Tulane’s center keeps eight veterinarians on staff, overseeing the animals’ care.
Harding added that doing the research on primates is key.
“Lower animals, like mice, are useful for some things,” he said. “But you can see the limitations where a mouse is not close” to a human in terms of physiology and biology, he said.
Primates are similar enough to humans, both genetically and immunologically, that they make a far better study animal than other mammals, Harding said.
Key research into AIDS has been done on nonhuman primates as well as, more recently, important work on treatments for Ebola, he said.
Is it necessary?
Not everyone agrees that it’s necessary to do research on primates, however.
Dr. John Pippin, with the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, said the use of monkeys might even be counterproductive. “It doesn’t answer any questions that can’t be answered in other ways,” he said. “And so it’s unnecessary.”
Other technologies, such as stem cell research, have a better chance of positive results than testing an animal like a rhesus macaque, Pippin said.
“When you get out of your own species, you open a Pandora’s box,” he said.
He pointed to research on chimpanzees, which he said is gradually being phased out. Chimps and humans share 98 percent of their DNA, and chimps are great apes like humans; to use another type of monkey is to move further away on the evolutionary tree, which diminishes the chance of a good result, he said.
Kathleen Conlee, of the Humane Society of the United States, said monkeys need social stimulation that they are unlikely to get in primate centers. Rhesus macaques in the wild can cover large distances and live in large groups, something it’s difficult for them to do living in captivity in a primate center, she said.
And the animals that are taken for research often are forced to live alone in much smaller cages, she said.
However, the Humane Society is not advocating an outright and immediate ban on animal research. Rather, the society is trying to help researchers find alternatives to animal research in the hopes of eventually ending the practice, she said.
The NIH’s Harding doesn’t see that happening anytime soon.
“Vaccines for Ebola and the treatments for Ebola were all developed using nonhuman primates,” he said. “These kinds of medical questions are not going away.”
One question remains, however: Will Tulane be allowed to work with “select agents” again, and, if so, when will that happen?
There is no timeline for the program’s resumption, Lackner said. But, he added, he fully expects it to be reinstated.
Follow Faimon A. Roberts III on Twitter, @faimon.