Washington Update

NASEM Nonhuman Primate Workshop Highlights Primate and Personnel Shortage

By: Naomi Charalambakis
Wednesday, September 7, 2022
On August 25, the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) held a public workshop focused on exploring the landscape of nonhuman primate research supported by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Hosted by the NASEM Committee on the State of the Science and Future Needs for Nonhuman Primate Model Systems, a key goal of the workshop was to hear diverse perspectives on the opportunities, challenges, and public health implications associated with nonhuman primate research.

NIH representatives opened the workshop by reviewing the priorities, and challenges researchers face, both extramurally and intramurally. Numerous NIH institutes and centers use nonhuman primates, with the majority requiring this model to study infectious diseases, neuroscience and neurological disease, and vaccine development. However, despite the demand for nonhuman primates to address pressing scientific needs, NIH researchers face several challenges preventing consistent research progress:
  • Lack of primate availability
  • Project delays
  • Price increases amid stagnant funding levels
  • Inadequate infrastructure
  • Personnel shortage
Numerous other stakeholders echoed these and other challenges scientists encounter, emphasizing that nonhuman primate research remains fundamental to scientific advancements, pandemic preparedness, and economic vitality. For example, representatives from the National Primate Research Centers (NPRCs)—a network of seven centers that provide animals, expertise, and specialized facilities to conduct research studies—explained how only one-third of research needs were adequately met during the COVID-19 pandemic due to the ongoing primate shortage. Given the supply chain challenges, several workshop panelists underscored the importance of building a resilient research infrastructure equipped to address future needs and nimble enough to withstand changing sociopolitical contexts. This includes expanding domestic breeding capacity.

To achieve enhanced infrastructure and breeding capabilities, workshop panelists highlighted the need for sustained, increased funding for nonhuman primate research, including the NPRCs. Research with primates is expensive and time consuming, characteristics further aggravated by the pandemic where grants are limited in funds, the price of primates has doubled, and trained staff is dwindling. Early-career researchers are particularly feeling the rippling effects of the current economic and logistical challenges, with many unable to secure grant funding or the appropriate animals needed to complete studies. By increasing funding and maximizing investments in nonhuman primate research, the U.S. can better prepare for the future and ensure we attract and retain exceptional scientific talent.

Another session of the workshop focused on emerging technologies such as cell cultures and tissue chips. While these nonanimal methods show promise in facilitating ways scientists can reduce, refine, and replace research with nonhuman primates, workshop panelists emphasized that they are still in their infancy. Nonhuman primates will remain essential for the foreseeable future because they can recapitulate the development of various diseases and have the appropriate therapeutic targets.

Congress requested that the committee conduct a landscape analysis and assess the current role of nonhuman primate model systems in biomedical research. The committee plans to release its draft report in early 2023.