Working on cures
Researchers at Yerkes facility study primates in fight against diseases

LAWRENCEVILLE - Human Immunodeficiency Virus causes AIDS. Cancer in some circles has been called the plague of the 20th century. Alzheimer's disease debilitates the elderly worldwide. And none of these have a cure.

But with the work being done at Emory University's 117-acre Yerkes National Primate Research Facility's Field Station, some day these diseases may no longer be a threat to humanity.

That's why the facility's newest addition, the Clinical Veterinary Medicine Administration and Research building, which was dedicated in April, is so important to the work being done by the field station's roughly 60 employees.

With a full-time geneticist on staff and a genetics lab now in place, researchers at one of the United States's eight primate research centers are trying to determine how genes play into causing some of these diseases.

"All diseases have genetic components to them and if we can understand how that works then we can hopefully improve the quality of life for people for a much longer period of time in their lives," Dr. Stuart Zola, the director of Yerkes, said. "Much of what happens in terms of disease and our behavior in general is driven in part by genetics, by how our genes function and send the messages to all the cells in our body about what they should be doing and how they should be doing that.

"So understanding genetics is gonna be key to understanding how we might be able to control our vulnerabilities to disease."

Yerkes' subjects for conducting its research are the four different primate species housed at the station, about 2,400 in total. They're the rhesus macaque, pigtail macaque and sooty mangabey, which are monkeys, and chimpanzees.

While attempts so far to develop a vaccine to prevent HIV and AIDS have failed, Zola said the rhesus macaque monkey has been instrumental in what we do know about the disease.

"The most promising vaccine for AIDS, which is still in human clinical trials, was developed with the rhesus," Zola said. "Is it going to be successful? We don't know. But all that we understand about AIDS has come from these animals."

As for future expansion plans, Zola said the next thing Yerkes would like to construct is an educational and visitors center, which he estimated would cost about $10 million. He said such a center would encourage students and visitors to be excited about science and would be a "win-win" for both Gwinnett County and Emory.

"We've got all the zeroes," Zola said with a laugh. "But people are talking about it and the idea is to generate more scientists in the world."

He said he's also working closely with the Chamber of Commerce to encourage more pharmaceutical companies to come to Gwinnett because of the proximity to Yerkes and its research.

"Yerkes and Emory really has been at the forefront of ideas and discoveries all of which don't cure diseases, we haven't cured a disease, but we have made important steps to court the ability to cure that disease," he said. "Without these steps we never would get to that point."