Sept. 5, 2006
Yerkes research holds promises of
advancing science, improving health
BY LISA NEWBERN
What do you get when you combine a dedicated neuroscientist and a talented magician? The unveiling of new directions and initiatives at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center.
Since Stuart Zola, Ph.D., came to Emory in 2001 as director of the center as well as a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences in Emory’s School of Medicine, he has helped solidify the reputation of the Yerkes Research Center within the scientific community as a leader for biomedical and behavioral research with nonhuman primates. Zola also has worked tirelessly to educate the Emory and greater Atlanta communities about the unique role Yerkes holds in advancing science and improving health.
To mark his fifth anniversary as director of Yerkes as well as the center’s 75th anniversary, Zola reflected on the research center’s past, present and future.
Lisa Newbern: Coming from a neuroscience background, what is it like to oversee a research facility with such varied programs?
Stuart Zola: Every day offers a new challenge. From our varied research programs to the day-to-day operations and management of the center, I learn from everyone at Yerkes. My training as a neuroscientist has been especially helpful because it has taught me to ask questions. I still do that a lot. Now, however, they are not just about how the brain works, but how we can we afford that new piece of equipment, whom we will recruit for a new position, how we can get that new facility built or how we can best facilitate the work of our researchers.
What do you know now that you wish you knew five years ago?
Zola: I wish I knew more about areas of research I think hold great promise for health care breakthroughs, such as immunology and genomics. If I were a youngster, that’s where I’d focus.
As director, where is inquiry leading Yerkes?
Zola: We are heading toward some very exciting and pioneering directions. For example, we are developing what we believe will be the first transgenic nonhuman primates for the study of two major neurodegenerative diseases, Huntington’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease. The availability of nonhuman primates that express the symptoms and characteristics of these diseases (based on genes transferred from humans) will revolutionize our ability to understand and clarify how the disease gets started and will position us for the development of treatments and interventions for these diseases.
The development of vaccines is another area that is hot, especially because we have a world-class group of immunologists and vaccine researchers who now are working with neuroscientists to help develop vaccines for noninfectious diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease. To develop a vaccine against the abnormal deposits of protein that are the hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease could prove to be the most promising therapy available during the next decade. We want it to happen at Yerkes.
Yerkes is well known for its role in developing a leading HIV/AIDS vaccine currently in clinical trials. What future research breakthroughs do you anticipate?
Zola: Vaccine research will continue as an important direction for us. What will change is the scope of the field to include vaccines for noninfectious diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease. At Yerkes, we are in an enviable position of having world-class immunologists, vaccine researchers and neuroscientists all under one large roof. We have fostered collaborations between them with an immediate goal toward developing vaccines for neurodegenerative diseases.
The Yerkes strategic plan states the center will lead in bringing together specialties, including comparative behavior, genomics and transgenic technology, to pioneer in comparative medicine and predictive health. What progress has the center made?
Zola: As a result of our recruitment activities during the last several years, we have established a critical mass of scientists representing the areas mentioned. Additionally, we have developed a brain imaging center that has functional imaging (both PET and MRI), as well as a cyclotron on site at Yerkes, and we recruited new imaging faculty. All of these scientists came together this past year and successfully collaborated on a five-year National Institute of Aging Program Project grant that will get under way in early 2007.
This program, which involves studies of comparative aging in monkeys, chimpanzees and humans, is unique in many ways, including the fact that we are studying the three primate species for which the genomes have been completed. This work simply could not be carried out anywhere else in the world. A major focus of the work will involve clarifying what makes humans uniquely vulnerable to certain illnesses. Chimpanzees, for example, despite their close genetic profile with humans, do not develop Alzheimer’s disease, and this research will help to clarify what it is that makes humans vulnerable to this and other diseases associated with aging.
What do you see as the biggest challenges Yerkes will face?
Zola: We have so many great ideas but don’t have the funding to carry them out. Our challenge is to develop resources that will allow us to sustain and advance research discoveries critical to better human health.
How is the research center responding to the federal government’s cuts to research funding?
Zola: We have hired the center’s first development director, who is collaborating with colleagues throughout Emory to increase Yerkes’ donor base. We also have implemented an internal mentoring program to help our researchers. I expect this strategy will help Yerkes stand out in obtaining highly competitive governmental funding.
Is your research relevant to the general population? For example, how do you expect Yerkes research will impact baby boomers?
Zola: Our research is directly relevant to the general population. Using baby boomers as the example, they are the wave that will experience longevity-related diseases. It’s the health issues to which they are vulnerable that we are trying to better understand. There are so many treatment possibilities on the horizon, and they all start with the basic science taking place at Yerkes.
The center’s staff always seems to be doing something to help the community. From blood drives to PALS donations to the Mexico mission holiday stockings, what compels them?
Zola: Our professional mission is focused on doing good—that is, carrying out research and discovery that will translate into benefits for society. It is not surprising that our staff, our students and faculty have this ethic as part of their personal as well as their professional lives. And so, it is quite natural for us to take on additional activities that are aimed toward making the world a better place and helping where we can. It feels good, and it’s the right thing to do as members of our local community as well as the broader world.
Tell me about the Monkey Biz program. I understand it’s popular with the community.
Zola: This is a real treat for everyone involved! The Monkey Biz program engages volunteer residents at homes for the elderly and involves them in preparing enrichment devices for our nonhuman primates. Helping to ensure psychological well-being of our monkeys is an important obligation in our stewardship of these animals. The residents fill paper cups with tasty treats and then seal them for subsequent distribution to the monkeys, who then spend considerable time playing with them and opening them to get the treats. The residents have a lot of fun doing this, they get to meet with Yerkes staff and learn about Yerkes, and they are engaged in meaningful social activity. They have come to look toward our visits with gleeful anticipation. Thus, the enrichment is actually twofold! Both the residents at the homes for the elderly and the monkeys at Yerkes obtain the benefits; this has become a great example of building community ties.
With all the scientific and technological advancements in the last decade, why continue using animals in research?
Zola: Animals provide information we can’t directly access in humans. Much of what we are learning requires that we ask questions in living organisms. There’s just no way around that. I want to underscore how seriously we take the care of the animals we use in our research programs; we are focused on the most humane care and treatment possible.
When people think of your leadership 75 years from now, what do you hope they’ll remember?
Zola: I don’t think it will be what I discovered but rather the relationships I fostered. I hope people will remember the wisdom I had to bring the best scientists in the world together to collaborate for amazing discoveries. I think that will be pretty cool if that is the case. Oh, and that I was a pretty good magician.
Anything you’d like to add?
Zola: This is an exciting time. But I’m also envisioning what the world of science and medicine will be like in the next five to 10 years. It’s also important to underscore that research with animals has been and will continue to be a critical part of the scientific discovery process. While we can’t predict what diseases are to come, we can predict that they will come. We must be well prepared to respond to them; animal research models hold the best promise.