At the New Iberia Research Center, UL hosts one of the world's foremost primate research centers, essential to advanced biomedical research around the world, including the research for a Nobel Prize. Recently ultoday.com interviewed Dr. Thomas J. Rowell, Director of the NIRC.
It would be hard to overstate the importance of the New Iberia Research Center, one of the largest and foremost primate centers in the world. Locally, it is an important contributor to the growing economy of the New Iberia area, and it is also one of the major assets supporting the rapid intellectual and academic ascent of UL.
But those observations completely miss the big picture. The NIRC, and the handful of facilities like it in the world, are critical to all of mankind. Every infant who survives prematurity, every toddler who survives leukemia, every teenager who survives a severe accident, every mother and child who survive a complicated delivery, and every one of us who survives diabetes or a heart attack or cancer, owes his or her life to the essential, brilliant, cutting edge research that is carried out at the New Iberia Research Center, and a small number of facilities like it around the globe.
A key concept of medical therapeutics is that it is not the drug, but the dose that makes the poison: at normal levels, water and oxygen are necessary for life. But at higher levels they become toxic, even lethal. The same is true of medicines. Virtually every life-saving drug that physicians prescribe daily, is a poison in the wrong dose and the wrong setting. In fact, many modern medicines, prescriptions that patients take every day as a matter of routine, are derived from some of our most potent poisons.
Nevertheless, physicians can safely prescribe these otherwise deadly agents because of the established procedures for identifying and testing new therapies. For every pharmaceutical product that makes it to market, there are thousands of compounds that do not survive a many-tiered and exhaustive process of elimination, one that requires years, or even a decade or more, for evaluation.
The process begins with blind testing of countless compounds for any biological activity whatsoever. Next comes a thorough investigation into the chemical structure and physiological characteristics of promising candidates. Finally comes a slow, painstaking gantlet of tests in ever more-complex animals-- all before extensive human trials begin.
The last stage before human testing comprises a rigorous battery in the animals that are most similar to us genetically, physiologically, and behaviorally: monkeys and apes. If we could not first test emerging medicines in other animals, particularly primates, our only option would be to test all new drugs on humans. That would be far too dangerous, and ethically unacceptable.
So without the NIRC-- and the very few institutions like it-- modern medicine would not exist.
Acquired by UL in 1984, the New Iberia Research Center is a cutting edge biomedical research facility, which houses, feeds and maintains 6500 non-human primates on 120 acres of property. The Center employs 230 people who manage 24 buildings comprising over 485,000 square feet, including a 12,000 square foot diagnostic facility. The Center is one of only three such facilities in the world offering access to a large ape animal model, while performing all studies within FDA-GLP standards. The budget for this massive operation is currently about $20M per year, and growing.
Yet, despite the enormous size of the facility and its finances, the only monetary contribution that the state of Louisiana has made to the NIRC was the construction of the main office and research facility. Beyond that one-time investment, the Center's entire budget and resources are derived from "soft money": non-recurring, competitive revenues from private and federal clients. ultoday.com recently interviewed Dr. Thomas J. Rowell, the Director of the NIRC.
Tell us about the NIRC.
The New Iberia Research Center [NIRC] became part of UL in 1984. Prior to that we had been part of the Gulf South Research Institute [GSRI], and this was the life sciences facility. At that time the NIRC was strictly a collaborative effort with the National Institutes of Health [NIH], working with Carlton Gajdusek on his investigations into prion diseases, which won him the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1976. The entire in-life portion of the research was done here with squirrel monkeys, chimpanzees, and other species... all of the chimpanzees here came from that initiative. GIRC brought in the first breeding populations for Gajdusek's investigations into prions.
In 1984, the GIRC divested itself of the NIRC. In a chance phone call between Dr. Ray Authément and then-Governor Edwin Edwards, UL agreed to take over the Center with one stipulation, that it would not cost UL a nickel. The Governor told Dr. Authément that the Center was self-sustaining, and it is. Our mission has evolved over the years, and now we're a partner for basic & applied research into human health problems. No veterinary research is done here, the focus is all on human problems.
We have 300,000 square feet of animal facilities, on 120 acres of land. The NIRC owns 100 acres of that, and the NIH has an additional 20. The facility houses 6500 non-human primates, and employs 230 human primates, from Iberia, Lafayette, St. Martin and Vermilion parishes. We are one of the top 10 non-agriculture/non-oil & gas employers in Iberia Parish. Our total budget for 2006-7 was just under $20M.
I want to point out that those dollars coming into the parish are new dollars; all of our clients and contractors are from outside of this region. 15% of our budget comes from Federal sources, basically from tax dollars, and the other 85% comes from outside of Louisiana, some even from outside the US. That budget provides the salaries, the vehicles, 2 tons of feed a week, office supplies, maintenance for our air handlers, plumbing and things like that. Our equipment, supplies and maintenance items are purchased right here in Iberia Parish whenever possible.
The NIRC is a registered importer for non-human primates, one of only 12 licensees in the US. We are licensed by the the Centers for Disease Control [CDC]. The USDA monitors our importation activities here as well, and reviews us once per year. We are also certified by AAALAC-International, the Association for Assessment & Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care. We are one of only three large-ape primate centers in the world that operate under the FDA's GLP guidelines-- Good Laboratory Practices-- a rigorous documentation and quality control system required of critical research. The other two are the Southwest National Primate Research Center in San Antonio, and the University of Texas-MD Anderson Cancer Center in Bastrop, Texas.
A lot of our work comes from partnering with the pharmacological companies for contract research. Our specialties are pharmacokinetics-- the fate of drugs in the body, their half-life, distribution and breakdown-- as well as the safety and efficacy of drugs. Our clients range from small companies that have been working in other animal systems and who have no experience in working with non-human primates, right up to the largest medical companies in the world. We do dosing, collect samples and track other endpoints, perform data analysis, and generate final reports. Much of what we do here provides the groundwork for FDA approval of new drugs before they enter into Phase I clinical human trials.
30% of our effort is contract research services. The other part of our work is animal resources management, where we partner with large companies and the NIH to maintain their primate populations. We even maintain and export primates for researchers in other parts of the world, who find it more practical to subcontract the care and feeding of their animals to external agencies.
15-20% of our work here is for the NIH, including NIAID, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; NINDS, the National Institute of Neurological Diseases & Stroke; NIDDK, the National Institute for Diabetes, Digestive and Kidney Diseases; as well as the CDC, the FDA, and the Department of Defense. We maintain their animal resources, as well as carry out some of their research.
80-85% of our work here is partnering with the private sector, pharmacological & biotech companies, none of which are located inside of Louisiana. In the last 10 years, we have supported research for global health needs in Italy, Switzerland, Korea, Israel, Denmark, Japan, and others.
The NIRC has grown rapidly. In 12 years, from 1995 to 2007, our budget has grown from $5M to almost $20M. During that time our NIH support has grown very slowly, so most of our growth is from the private sector.
We also support some purely academic activities. We have 7 veterinarians on site, who have teaching responsibilities at the LSU School of Veterinary Medicine. They go to the veterinary school at least twice a year, and we also have veterinary students rotating in every 5 weeks, so that they can learn about veterinary responsibilities in primate care. Dr. Babette Fontenot also oversees graduate students from the UL Psychology and Cognitive Sciences programs, and undergraduate students from Renewable Resources. Students come in as work-study interns, for most of a semester. We have about 5-10 students from UL each year.
Maintenance of that many primates must be a large task.
Each of our animals represents a very large investment by the NIRC or our partners, so maintaining their health and well-being is very important, and it does consume a lot of resources. In addition to food and housing, at any one time 5% of our population is under veterinary care, for everything from colds, to childbirth, to serious illness, as well as those animals involved in research. 5% of 6500 primates is about 300 animals, so that is a large number.
In addition, there are many unusual overhead costs. Our animals must be supplied with 100% fresh air. For those that are kept indoors for studies, that also includes refrigerating or warming the incoming air. Our utility bills can be very large.
And then some of the infants must be hand-reared, either because of an ill mother, an ill infant, prematurity, or some other problem. So yes, maintaining our animal population is a large job, and it's what we are about.
What are you looking at for the future?
In the last 2 or 3 months, UL Vice President for Research & Graduate Programs Dr. Robert Stewart convened an institutional review committee for the NIRC, involving representatives from academia, industry, and the UL administration, to evaluate both the strengths and risks of the Center. The committee visited, interviewed staff here at the NIRC and at the UL main campus, and studied our mission. The group is proposing ways that the NIRC can offer synergy with scientific, biological, & biomedical research at UL. We are in the process of finalizing that report.
Talk about your team.
We have 5 Divisions: Animal Resources, Research Resources, Behavioral Sciences, Veterinary Sciences, and Occupational Services.
Explain "Occupational Services."
Occupational Services oversees our support programs for the other direct animal care Divisions. They hire the support staff at the Center, oversee employee health and safety, and are responsible for purchasing. Very little of our purchasing and human resource functions are done through UL; it's mostly done internally, from pens and paper to multi-million dollar research equipment.
Each of those 5 Divisions has a leader, and the way the Center is designed they are all interdependent. For instance, the majority of research falls under the Division of Research Resources, but research also requires animals, veterinarians, often the behavioral staff, and of course, all of the employees fall under Occupational. So they are all working hand in hand.
The internal review committee listed our senior staff as one of the strengths of the Center, particularly in the way it is organized to collaborate on accomplishing our mission.
What is the most unusual piece of equipment here?
What makes us unique is our flow cytometry equipment, machines that use light refraction and diffusion to provide for very specific analysis of blood samples. It's one thing to design a study and determine the overall white blood cell count, but in many diseases such as AIDS and SIDS [Simian Immune Deficiency Syndrome], it's not enough to know that the numbers are going up and down, we also need accurate counts of killer T-Cells and other components. With flow cytometry we can break down the different classes of white blood cells, as well as count platelets and red blood cells, and look for abnormal sizes and shapes in all of them.
In addition, for critical medical research a lot of the time it's not enough to provide the animal model, we need to provide blood components. With apheresis, we centrifuge the blood, and the machine can harvest off only the components that we need-- platelets, white blood cells, plasma, or others-- and then we can return the blood to the animal. We can do a hundred studies, and the animal doesn't have to be available to the researchers. Often investigators can do 2 or 3 years of work this way. The procedure needs to be done only once, and it provides very valuable research tissue to the investigators, without access to the animal
What are your other strengths?
That ties into our recent institutional review. As I noted, our personnel and our organization were recognized as an important asset.
Another is that our revenue base is so diversified. We are not supported just by the NIH. We don't only supply animal resources. There are several components that make up our revenue base. So, when money becomes tight at the NIH, our contract work with the private sector can pick up the slack.
Another strength is the diversity of our primate populations. We have 8 primate species, including chimpanzees, African green monkeys, capuchins, and a number of macaque species.
When UL took over the NIRC, GSRI had dwindled from 250-300 employees, down to 15-20 people, and some of them are senior staff members today. The Center previously had many other animal species, but at that time it only had about 1500 non-human primates.
What do you see as some of your risks?
Part of what we see as a large risk, is not having a mission that is closely aligned with the University. We're trying to correct that, and the institutional review looked at that issue in depth.
The other large risk is the animal extremist groups, and the threat that they pose to our mission of serving public health. Those are the two largest risks for UL and the NIRC.