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Oregon National Primate Research Center Plays Key Role in Genome Project

In a separate study, OHSU researchers also provide data that will help determine the best animal models for treating and curing disease

When the Human Genome Project was completed in 2003, it was hailed as a groundbreaking health achievement. Now, scientists in Oregon have played a key role in the latest significant breakthrough that will greatly impact genetic studies aimed at treating and curing disease. Researchers at the Oregon National Primate Research Center at Oregon Health & Science University took part in the analysis of the newly completed rhesus macaque monkey genome. The results of this monumental project, which involved 35 institutions and 170 researchers, are published in the current edition of the journal Science.

Scientists at the Oregon National Primate Research Center provided DNA samples from monkeys at the Hillsboro center and helped analyze those samples to decode the rhesus genome. Analyzing the data identified all of the genes in the monkey and mapped out their locations. When matched against the human genome, it was found that the rhesus macaque was 93 percent similar.

Rhesus macaques are the most common and preferred monkey species used in biomedical research due to the vast amounts of scientific data that already exist on the monkeys and their many similarities to humans including their immune system, reproductive system, neurobiology, genetics and overall anatomy. In fact, the Rh (Rhesus) factor of blood was discovered in the species. An improved understanding of the genetic makeup of the rhesus macaque will help researchers better design their studies. Of the approximately 4,000 monkeys at the Oregon National Primate Research Center, 3,600 are rhesus macaque monkeys.

"Like the human genome, the monkey genome is similar to a roadmap. It tells us where the genes are and what their makeup is," explained Betsy Ferguson, Ph.D., an affiliate scientist at the Oregon National Primate Research Center. "In doing so, we recognized the many similarities between the rhesus and the human genetic makeup, which is astounding given the fact that the two species diverged and developed independently about 25 million years ago."

"The next step for researchers is to continue the process of understanding the role of both individual genes and groups of genes in human and animal health. Identifying the differences between humans and rhesus can help pinpoint genes that contribute to human-specific diseases, such as Alzheimer's disease. In other cases, humans and rhesus macaques share the same naturally occurring diseases, such as diabetes. In these situations, finding similar genetic variants in both monkeys and humans can help identify genes that underlie a disease and can suggest medications or therapies to treat it."

A separate yet related research project conducted at OHSU's primate center will help researchers determine the most suitable types of animals to study. Through genetic analysis, the Oregon researchers were able to better distinguish between two subspecies of rhesus macaques: Chinese and Indian. The results of this research were published earlier this year in the journal BMC Genomics.

"To the naked eye, these animals are almost completely indistinguishable from one another," explained Ferguson. "However genetically, there are significant differences that are very important to be aware of in conducting certain kinds of health studies."

For example, the two subspecies respond very differently to Simian Immunodeficiency Virus (SIV). SIV is a close relative of HIV, which causes AIDS in humans. Scientists believe that studies of SIV in monkeys will provide important clues to fighting HIV in humans.

In addition, this new work led to the development of a new genetic test to distinguish Indian and Chinese rhesus macaques, which is being used at research centers throughout the country. The new test will likely reduce the numbers of animals required for studies, since it will allow researchers to select the precise subspecies that is most suitable for the study of a specific disease.

The ONPRC is a registered research institution, inspected regularly by the United States Department of Agriculture. It operates in compliance with the Animal Welfare Act and has an assurance of regulatory compliance on file with the National Institutes of Health. The ONPRC also participates in the voluntary accreditation program overseen by the Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care International (AAALAC).

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