SAN ANTONIO – About 400 acres are dedicated to science on the campus of the Texas Biomedical Research Institute on the West Side.
The Southwest National Primate Research Center, part of the Texas Biomed campus, is home to the largest colony of captive baboons in the world. Not something you might think of when you’re at the 151 freeway and 410 loop interchange.
Animals help researchers determine if a treatment is safe for humans.
In total, the Southwest National Primate Research Center has more than 2,500 primates, including:
About 1,000 baboons
38 retired chimpanzees
More than 900 rhesus macaques
Plus squirrel monkeys, capuchin monkeys, cynomolgus macaques and pig-tailed macaques
Syrian hamsters, guinea pigs and mice are also part of the research
Baboon Coral is a 6 acre open enclosure with 12 foot steel walls.
In the 1970s, a captive breeding program was established in the corral.
“First and foremost, for anyone who works with animals, the priority is animal health and welfare,” says Corinna Ross, associate director of research at the Southwest National Primate Research Center, who specializes in marmoset biology.
How is the environment?
“We have people who specialize in making sure their nutrition is correct and varied,” Ross added. “They don’t just get the same thing every day. They get a variety of vegetables and fruits and stuff, just like people do.
Behavioral specialists make sure the primates socialize while enrichment teams make sure the animals don’t get bored.
Primates have access to things like puzzles, music, and television. But, of course, the animals are not kept in the center to play.
“We can’t just replicate things on a computer or a dish. We need to understand how systems interact with each other, and that’s where animals come in,” Ross said. “Their systems are very similar to ours, and if we can understand it in them, that will help us understand it in ourselves.”
Joanne Turner, vice president of research at Texas Biomed, said animals help determine if something is safe for humans.
“The human trials are really good,” Turner said. “But before human trials, you need to make sure something is safe and effective in animals so we know it’s going to be safe when we put it in people.”
COVID-19 is the newest, but animal testing has contributed to countless medical breakthroughs
When the pandemic hit, Texas Biomed changed everything to focus on uncovering the impact of COVID-19 on animals to understand its impact on us.
Primates most resemble humans.
“What we’ve found is that when you infect them, they develop fever, weight loss, and pneumonia, usually a few days after the virus, and then they recover,” said Dr Larry Schlesinger, President and CEO of Texas Biomed. “So it’s actually a mild to moderate, not severe pattern of COVID.”
“We know there’s a huge amount of inflammation during this infection that’s almost as bad as the infection,” Turner said. “So we also learned from animal models.”
Then Pfizer called. The company needed to study its COVID-19 vaccine in animals before human clinical trials could begin.
“We have a comparison group — the control group — that gets a vaccine without the vaccine and a group that gets the vaccine,” Schlesinger said. “We infect them and we are able to see if the vaccine protects.”
“Historically, animals have contributed … to all vaccine development,” Ross said. “From poliomyelitis and smallpox, to the most recent, which was COVID.”
Yet animal contributions are not limited to vaccines. They have played a role in countless medical breakthroughs.
“Primates have contributed to how we understand what happens when infants are born prematurely,” Ross added. “In the NICU, the development and use of surfactant, which saved my daughter, and the use of ventilation systems, which also saved my daughter – these did not exist, and they would not. not without animal research.”
Schlesinger said animal research helped during Ebola outbreaks.
“And in the case of Ebola, we were able, through our animal research, by the way, to make progress on therapies and vaccines at the institute,” Schlesinger said.
Another reason why animals are good test subjects? They live in a controlled environment. Researchers know their habits, like how they sleep and what they eat. (They don’t sneak out to eat fries like some humans.)
But it’s not without scrutiny for all the good animal research has done.
“I don’t even want to say what the critics say we do because it’s so awful, and we don’t do those things,” Ross said.
Whether or not the debate surrounding animal research is a topic that interests you, you’ve probably heard claims that animals are treated inhumanely in testing facilities or that the idea of testing anything on a living being that cannot consent to this test is unethical or immoral.
These are some of the concerns we heard right here in San Antonio as the city council considered granting public funding to Texas Biomed.
“The city of San Antonio should not subsidize the kind of animal cruelty inherent in animal testing,” one woman said in December 2021 before city leaders.
In February, another woman speaking to City Council echoed her saying, “In the not-too-distant future, we will look back in horror at what we have done to other beings capable of feeling pain, to love their family, to desire freedom, and to know what is happening to them is not fair.
A possible solution
How do researchers continue to innovate to create safe and effective medical treatments without first testing them on animals? A solution may already be in the works.
“We’re really working hard on engineering these in vitro models of human tissues and organs,” said Shrike Zhang, bioengineer and assistant professor at Harvard Medical School. “Basically, how to recapitulate the structures and functions of human tissues and organs outside the human body.”
Zhang sees both sides: the incredible medical advances made possible by animal modeling and the ethical dilemmas associated with the practice. This is partly why he is working on alternatives in the field of bio-printing.
Think of bio-printing as an extension of 3D printing. But instead of creating something 3D using a material like plastic, bioprinting uses a biomaterial, which could include human cells.
What is printed? Organs, or parts of them.
And that’s not the only potential alternative to animal testing. Another is to create human tissue on a chip.
“That is to start recapitulating lungs, liver, spleen by adult stem cells and adding other cells into a matrix and developing models that could eventually allow us to move to human trials without animals “Schlesinger said.
Zhang said a lot of work has gone into building these chip devices.
“People have been working a lot on these so-called ‘organ chip devices,'” Zhang said. “These are small types of microfluidic chips that help create much of the dynamic microenvironments.”
They are dynamic in the sense that they work. For example, parts of lungs or blood vessels recreated on a chip can expand and contract. Scientists can see how organs and tissues interact.
It gives researchers a way – outside of the human or animal body – to discover how diseases and treatments affect the inside of a body.
“The reason we do this type of in vitro modeling is of course at some point to eliminate some of the animal studies in certain types of areas and also reduce the use of animals in other areas. “, said Zhang. noted.
New technologies still very much studied
Zhang points out that the impression of something as complex as a fully functioning kidney or heart, for example, has yet to be realized. But the potential is there.
“I think with the technology we have now, I would say animals are probably key for some of this development, like a vaccine that we’ve been working on for a year or two,” Zhang said.
Schlesinger says more research is coming, but it won’t be a quick process.
“There’s future science coming to pike,” Schlesinger said. “It takes time. Science takes time.
Both humans and animals can expect to benefit from these new scientific discoveries.
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