Duke primate center gets second chance

Large cash infusion will upgrade facility and expand research and education

By Harvey Black(hblack@chorus.net) | October 29, 2003

Duke University will spend $4 million over the next few years to upgrade and sustain the Duke University Primate Center, the university announced last week. The center, whose future has been uncertain for several years, had been criticized for failing to contribute to Duke's teaching and research.

"There was not a significant use of the animals to advance research, and there was not a significant use of the animals and the facility for educational purposes," said Duke Provost Peter Lange, describing the conclusions of a 2001 university task force that examined the facility's operation.

"It's undeniable that the primate center had drifted away and formed its own little island," said Anne Yoder, associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Yale and a member for the past 2 years of a long-standing external scientific advisory committee of the center. Lange declined to discuss why the center was not oriented to research and education.

Kenneth Glander, professor of biological anthropology and anatomy at Duke and former director of the primate center, did not respond to The Scientist's request for comment.

In existence since 1966, the Duke primate center is the world's only facility dedicated to prosimians—primates whose evolution antedates that of monkeys and apes by 50 million years—according to Lange. The facility cares for approximately 250 animals, primarily lemurs, and sponsors public tours (with 11,000 visitors last year), as well as a public outreach program called "Adopt a Lemur."

The center had been doing and continues to do "a fine job" conserving and maintaining the animals, Lange said. The issue was to make a stark decision to close the center or to invest a "substantial amount of money to upgrade it and have it contribute to Duke's teaching and research mission."

Reluctant to close the facility, Lange appointed William Hylander, professor of biological anthropology and anatomy at Duke, as center director in 2001 to "build up the research mission and build up the teaching mission" and to assess the center's future. Hylander reached out to campus scientists to encourage a range of research at the center, and according to Lange, there has been a threefold boost in the amount of research conducted at the center.

Hylander told The Scientist that he's been "reaching out to various cognitive psychologists" as well as to researchers looking at reproductive physiology. "There's a big interest in genomics," he added, and "we've encouraged people who are interested in aging." Mouse lemurs may offer a good model to study Alzheimer disease because they develop "tangles and plaques" and cognitive deficits, he explained.

"We really have branched out a lot," Hylander said of the new research mandate. "The general policy is that we don't do permanent harm to these animals, which has broadened it from what it used to be, where it was strictly what they would call noninvasive," he said.

Currently, the annual center budget is funded by a 3-year $1.1 million National Science Foundation grant (awarded in 2001) and an annual university appropriation of $800,000.

The university has begun a search for a permanent director, and there will be a major effort to boost funding for the center from grants and private donors. The center's external advisory committee will also be advertising the center's openness to research, according to Yoder. "The doors are open for scientists to propose research projects," she said.

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