The Yerkes National Primate Research Center is one of eight U.S. national research centers sponsored by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for the biomedical and behavioral study of nonhuman primates. Each center is affiliated with an academic institution; Yerkes is administered by Emory University in Atlanta as part of the Woodruff Health Sciences Center and is funded by grants through the National Center for Research Resources Division of the NIH. The close resemblance between the behavioral and biological functions of nonhuman primates and humans makes nonhuman primate research crucial in developing treatment and prevention strategies for human health disorders.
The Yerkes Center comprises two facilities. The main center on the Emory University campus hosts biomedical research across a variety of disciplines, and a 117-acre field station in Lawrenceville handles both breeding and behavioral studies of social groups in a naturalistic environment. The main center houses approximately 1,300 nonhuman primates; the satellite station houses around 2,300. Seven species of nonhuman primates are studied at Yerkes. This diversity of species is maintained because different types of primates best model certain human diseases or social behaviors. In addition, the center holds around 5,000 rodents.
The center was founded by Robert Mearns Yerkes, one of the earliest champions of nonhuman primate research. He earned a Ph.D. in psychology from Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1902. Following his influential World War I (1917-18) military work at the National Research Council, Yerkes accepted an appointment to a research position at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, at the Institute of Psychology, where he created facilities for behavioral research on primates in 1928. A year later he moved the Yale Laboratories of Primate Biology to Orange Park, Florida, which provided opportunities for observing and breeding primates in a climate similar to their native habitat. While Yerkes directed the laboratories (1929-41), the emphasis was on behavioral studies. After Yerkes retired, Yale changed the name of the facility to Yerkes Research Center in honor of the founder’s pioneering work.
By the 1950s laboratory maintenance and the travel required from New Haven proved impractical for researchers. Thus in 1956, after Yerkes’s death, Yale University arranged for Emory to take ownership of Yerkes Research Center. During this decade, American physicians visited a Soviet laboratory conducting cardiac studies with primates. The U.S. doctors were impressed with this success in comparative medicine—the study of animals to learn the mechanisms of human disease—and became advocates for primate research facilities at home.
In 1960 Congress empowered the NIH to provide specialized resources for scientists working with primates. Over the next few years, the NIH dedicated seven existing facilities as Regional Primate Research Centers; Emory’s Yerkes Center was among them. With federal funding, Emory was able to construct both the main campus and the field station. The Yerkes Regional Primate Center moved to Georgia in 1965. In 2002 the center was renamed the Yerkes National Primate Research Center by the NIH.
Mission and Research
The Yerkes Center’s mission is to conduct a research program that addresses scientific issues related to human health and to provide organization, facilities, and specialized knowledge to both affiliated scientists and researchers from around the world.
Yerkes’s scientists have contributed to the understanding of the AIDS virus and are working to develop vaccines against it and other devastating infectious diseases. Researchers in neuroscience have made discoveries in the areas of cognitive decline, Parkinson’s disease, psychiatric illnesses, and drug addiction that have led to improved treatments for these problems. Behavioral studies continue to provide information on social and physiological issues. Vision studies yield information on both visual disorders and motor coordination.
Controversy and Care
Nonhuman primate medical research supplies a crucial link between small-animal research and clinical trials in human medicine. But the similarities that make research on nonhuman primates important also make comparative testing on them controversial. Some organizations allege cruelty to research subjects; the noted primatologist Jane Goodall has been an outspoken critic of conditions at captive research centers, including Yerkes. The Yerkes Center recognizes concerns regarding the use of primates and abides by strict protocols. Emory’s Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee reports to all regulatory agencies and ensures strict compliance with the federal Animal Welfare Act, which provides ethical guidelines and sets humane standards for every aspect of care at each stage of a research animal’s life. The independent Association for the Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care International has granted the center full accreditation.
The Yerkes National Primate Research Center continues to advance science and clinical treatments in such areas as organ transplants, genetic models and predictors of illness, and infectious disease, among others.