Harvard closing primate center in Southborough
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Harvard closing primate center in Southborough

By Kendall Hatch, MetroWest Daily News, April 24, 2013

SOUTHBOROUGH — The primate research center that has been the site of four primate deaths in recent years will close within two years because of concerns over funding, Harvard Medical School officials announced Tuesday.
In a statement, school officials said the New England Primate Research Center will shut down in 12 to 24 months. Administrators said they decided to close the center rather than seek the renewal of a federal 5-year grant. The decision came, they said, after reviewing "the long-term academic benefits and the financial cost of continuing to operate" the center.

The lab came under scrutiny when, over the course of two years, four monkeys died there, from mid-2010 to the beginning of 2012. Officials said in the statement released by the school that the decision comes in a time of diminished funding for medical research. Steps had been taken in the last two years to improve the day-to-day operations at the center, the statement says.

Officials said they struggled with the decision over whether to renew the grant, administered by the National Institutes of Health, but agreed that "winding down" the activities at the Southborough facility would be more beneficial to the college at large.
"Deciding how to best assign our limited resources is not unique to HMS," Jeffrey S. Flier, dean of the Faculty of Medicine of Harvard University, said in a statement, "but this decision was made with a heavy heart."

The decision to close the center, one of eight national primate research centers across the country, was seen as a loss to other researchers.

Joseph Carey, vice president of public affairs at the Texas Biomedical Research Institute, which hosts the Southwest National Primate Research Center, said in a statement that researchers there were dismayed at the news of the Harvard facility’s closing.

"The Texas Biomedical Research Institute is disappointed to hear that Harvard University has decided to phase out its New England Primate Research Center," Carey wrote in the statement.

"We strongly support research with nonhuman primates, will continue to host the SNPRC and are committed to assisting the NEPRC in an orderly transition in placing their primate colonies, research programs, and faculty and staff."

Harvard officials said transition plans are being hashed out for faculty and staff members, with a focus on ensuring that the animals remain properly cared for.

School officials said the primates now at the site will be transferred to one of the seven other national research facilities or managed in Southborough while keeping with proper protocols.

"I am personally committed to instituting a transition that embodies our tremendous respect and gratitude for the Center’s faculty and staff, and one that guarantees the welfare of all animals in our trust. I am also confident that we can achieve our research goals through collaboration with a vibrant national scientific community," Flier said in a statement.

After making headlines following the deaths of the monkeys there, the center was cited early last year by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which determined employees had made mistakes. Last summer, the center made changes to abide by the recommendations of an independent panel of scientists reviewing operations.

Animal rights activists, who have repeatedly criticized the facility, welcomed the news.

"The closure of Harvard’s Primate Research Center is the best news I have ever heard," Michael Budkie, executive director of Stop Animal Exploitation Now. "The potential exists to bring freedom to many monkeys and to redirect millions of dollars into clinical and epidemiological research which will more directly benefit humans."

Budkie said he doesn’t believe the decision to close was made for financial reasons.

"Harvard wants the public to believe that this closure is due to economics," Budkie said in a statement.

"That is simply not true. The only way Harvard could quash this scandal is to close the primate center, because even last year’s resignation of the Center’s director could not end their ineptitude. This closure is the direct result of pressure from activists led by SAEN."

Budkie said his organization will be contacting Harvard Medical School to inquire about placing some of the animals in primate sanctuaries.

Flier said that school officials are proud of the work the center has done over the last 50 years. Research into some of the same areas undertaken there will be continued in other programs at the college, he said.

We believe primate research is critical to the future of biomedical research and the effective development of lifesaving therapies," he said. "The Center’s research focus on HIV, infectious disease and vaccines will continue to be effectively pursued through scientific programs throughout HMS." 

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