Demand for a monkey commonly used in health research is higher than ever, but scientists say a shortage of the animal is stalling their search for cures.
The rhesus macaque monkey has long been a lab favorite because its physiology is similar to humans. Increased demand caused by public health crises from AIDS to the threat of bioterrorism have led to the shortage that's slowed research and has scientists paying up to $10,000 per animal.
"The promise for improving health and quality of life in people is tremendous with this new information, but it all needs to be evaluated in animals before we start doing it in people," Dr. Joseph Kemnitz, director of the National Primate Research Center at the University of Wisconsin, told The Boston Globe. "People are just unable to perform the research that they intended to do."
Eight federally funded centers, which breed the monkeys and carry out experiments for researchers around the world, have increased the total number of monkeys from about 12,000 in 1996 to 15,000 now, but that is still not keeping up with demand, said Dr. Jerry Robinson, director of the National Primate Research Centers Program at the National Institutes for Health.
It is difficult to build up the monkey population because they have a slow reproductive cycle.
Dr. Ruth Ruprecht of Harvard Medical School had to slow down her AIDS research because of the shortage. Ruprecht, who works at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute, and Dr. Judy Lieberman are working on a promising oral AIDS vaccine but had to wait a year for an NIH grant big enough to buy, house and study 86 rhesus monkeys, at a cost of $400,000, in the first year of their $12 million project.
The shortage "is slowing down AIDS research; there's no doubt about it," Ruprecht said.
The shortage may even get worse, scientists said. The NIH are handing out $1.4 billion in new grants for research into bioterrorism agents, including anthrax. That growing field could have as great an impact as the AIDS crisis, which increased demand for monkeys by about 30 percent, Kemnitz said.
Scientists are asking the NIH for $100 million to expand and modernize the eight research centers and to pay for new background research on other monkey species for scientific use.
The shortage has been known about for years, but scientists have tried to address it quietly because of the fear of backlash from animal rights groups.