UC Davis unveils new labs for respiratory disease research in primates, humans

On the outside, the new building at UC Davis’ primate research center looks ordinary; it’s what is inside that’s noteworthy.

The interior of the building offers state of the art pulmonary labs, smoke inhalation rooms, and other research rooms that will likely put UC Davis at the top of universities using non-human primates for respiratory disease research.

The 19,000-square-foot building sits inside the sprawling grounds of the heavily guarded California National Primate Research Center, a 330-acre facility that has seen its share of controversy over its use and treatment of rhesus macaque monkeys in research on studies ranging from HIV to Alzheimer’s disease.

Currently, 4,900 monkeys live in heated outdoor corrals at the facility. Last year, the 52-year-old center was cited by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for failing to provide adequate veterinary care in the deaths of 19 monkeys. The primate center has also drawn the attention of animal rights groups, especially in the 1980s when one group mailed ticking packages to the center.

The facility is one of eight such primate centers in the United States. The new building cost $18 million, with $14.2 million coming from federal stimulus funds. UC Davis paid the remainder, said Andy Fell, a spokesman for the university.

Once fully operational in July, university scientists, say the building will be notable for how it makes UC Davis a definitive one-stop shop for the study of respiratory diseases such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and other ailments that are found in higher rates in part of the Central Valley and the state compared with other regions of the country.

The building replaces an older steel structure that offered less than half the capacity to do such research, said Louise Olsen, research coordinator at the primate center.

Most notably, the new building offers an expansion of inhalation rooms, Olson said.

The most striking of them is a large, stainless steel-lined smoke chamber where monkeys will be exposed to cigarette smoke or other airborne particles to study health effects. In total, the new center offers 12 inhalation and exposure rooms. About 12,000 square feet of the building will be devoted exclusively to respiratory disease research, with half of that devoted to inhalation research.

“We will be the only primate center and only university in the country that has this kind of facility. So, this is very unique,” said Lisa Miller, a professor of veterinary medicine.

She said a number of similar lung centers exist in the United States but that those facilities do much of their study on rodents.

At Davis, the study has focused on research using the macaque monkeys, given their similarities to humans, she said.

“We’re basically the research step before something goes to clinical trials,” Miller said, adding, “And as far as pediatric models, basically we’re it.”

“We want to make things happen. We want to develop novel therapeutics, we want to develop interventions and be able to tell people whether or not their child is more or less susceptible to disease later on,” she said.

That kind of research made news recently when the center announced a study correlating the presence of wildfire smoke and immuno-suppression in young macaque monkeys. In that study, young monkeys that lived through the frequent forest fires of the summer of 2008 were compared to monkeys born a year later, when fire activity was a fraction of the prior year. The study found that exposure to wildfire smoke depressed the immune systems of young monkeys.

“One of our goals is not just studying and reporting outcomes. We all know air pollution is bad,” said Miller, who was a lead researcher in the study. “What we don’t know is why some individuals will go on and develop severe disease and other individuals won’t.”

Miller believes the new building will offers a great opportunity for research that will lead to preventive disease practices for humans “because you need to know what to look for – and right now we do not know what to look for, especially with children,” she said.