Washington Update

Research Spotlight: Understanding the Value of Nonhuman Primate Research with Constantinos Petrovas, PhD

By: Naomi Charalambakis
Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Tucked inside the rear corner of the vast National Institutes of Health campus, you’ll find the Dale and Betty Bumpers Vaccine Research Center (VRC). Part of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, the VRC is responsible for the research and development of vaccines for HIV/AIDS, Ebola, and influenza.

As a neuroscientist, I thought I understood the cooperative nature of biomedical research. But I developed an even deeper appreciation for research collaboration after touring the Tissue Analysis Core within the VRC’s Immunology Laboratory. I met with chief scientist Constantinos Petrovas, PhD, who oversees the development and application of imaging techniques to analyze tissue cells.

Dr. Petrovas has studied HIV and simian immune deficiency (SIV) for over 15 years.  He described how a sizeable array of research — from basic structural biology to clinical trials — is integrated under one roof, across dozens of VRC labs.

The core contains high ceilings and row after row of work benches, covered with hundreds of microscopes, vented hoods, and other scientific instruments. Students and technicians were scattered throughout the lab, each tending to an experiment or protocol.

An accurate animal model is critical for scientists in answering unresolved questions about HIV/SIV infection. Dr. Petrovas’s research utilizes tissue from nonhuman primates (NHPs), highest order mammals that are the best species for modeling and understanding human disease.

Dr. Petrovas explains that these animals are especially advantageous for two reasons: first, NHPs are closely related to humans, sharing nearly 99 percent of genetic material. Another important yet often overlooked factor is their response to disease, which is quite similar to humans. For example, in HIV/AIDS, NHPs experience similar symptoms and have comparable cell dynamics when observed under a microscope.

When asked about alternative research methods to animal models, including computer simulations, organs on a chip, and tissue cultures, Dr. Petrovas emphasized that while these techniques are strong supportive models, there are still limitations. For example, organ explants and tissue cultures are removed from the body so they don’t have a consistent blood supply. Developing a treatment or vaccine would still need to be tested in a live animal to verify its safety and efficacy. “HIV is complicated, and developing its vaccine is very difficult,” Dr. Petrovas tells me. He explains that models such as computer simulation certainly offer important clues, but “we cannot simulate every aspect of the disease because we still do not know exactly what is going on.”

For now, NHPs play a vital role in this mission. To understand complex diseases such as HIV/SIV, scientists at the Tissue Analysis Core and the VRC rely on animal models to advance knowledge and facilitate the development of a vaccine.