State investment boosts Kunming centre

PUBLISHED : Monday, 09 July, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 09 July, 2007, 12:00am

Only an hour's drive from the middle of Yunnan's capital, the Kunming National Primate Research Centre is less isolated than hundreds of other mainland breeding hubs for monkeys for experiments.

The centre has a long history. It sent monkeys to measure the effects of the nation's first nuclear bomb in 1964 and is now the biggest monkey farm owned by a public research institute on the mainland.

There are about 1,500 primates for experiment in stock that live next to the centre's new laboratory in stainless steel cages.

Director Yan Ye said the centre's monkeys were not sold overseas. 'We need to satisfy our researchers' growing demand first,' he said.

Demand for primates for experiment on the mainland is on the rise due to the government's efforts to strengthen biological security and a rising number of overseas laboratories setting up research centres on the mainland to capitalise on the country's supply of farmed primates, low maintenance costs and the lack of public criticism.

In mainland research, the turning point for the public sector industry came in 2003, when the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome exposed China's vulnerability to biological threats.

Dr Yan said the nation's leadership was shocked when it realised the mainland, the largest primate exporter in the world, did not have enough monkeys for its own researchers.

He said prohibitive prices meant that most institutes could not afford good-quality, captive-bred primates. 'The cost of a well-bred monkey easily exceeds 10,000 yuan. It is a price unthinkable to most mainland agencies,' Dr Yan said.

Few research institutes kept primates for experiment; and when an emergency occurred, not many researchers had the experience to handle and conduct tests on such scarce animals.

Dr Yan sent his monkeys to Beijing for tests during the Sars outbreak and 'since then the government has been very generous', he said.

In 2004, the central government granted the research centre 200 million yuan to expand its monkey stock, upgrade facilities and build a laboratory. When construction is completed this year, the monkey population at the centre will double.

'[The funding] is enormous if you compare it with our entire annual budget in 1995 - 50,000 yuan,' he said.

Dr Yan said he had no regrets about returning to the mainland from the US, even though conditions in the early days were difficult. Supported by a soaring economy, the nation's primate research was closing the gap with institutes overseas, he said.

'Every detail is in strict accordance with the highest level of international practice, from the number of germs to the comfort of monkeys,' Dr Yan said.

The centre is now seeking certification from the Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care International so that it can conduct lucrative experiments for multinational pharmaceutical companies.

The Kunming centre has already been visited this year by representatives of several pharmaceutical companies, including AstraZeneca and Wyeth.

Other breeding bases in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangdong and Guangxi are expanding rapidly. 'I believe China will be a major centre of primate experiments one day,' Dr Yan said.

The mainland is not the only region with a wealth of monkeys. India has a large population of rhesus monkeys, but its religious practices make large-scale experiments difficult. Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand also have macaques, but there is no scientific infrastructure to support an industry.

Dr Yan said buying a monkey in the US was 10 times as expensive as buying one on the mainland, with much higher maintenance costs.

According to the magazine Nature Medicine, toxicity tests on monkeys for new drugs cost up to US$5,000 per monkey per trial on the mainland.

One trend is the increasing number of scientists with Chinese backgrounds returning to conduct research, form partnerships or establish labs on the mainland.

A renowned Parkinson's disease researcher was invited by the central government to work in a laboratory on a Guangxi primate farm two years ago. Now, he said, he did not want to leave.

'We have as many monkeys as we want and there is no interruption by animal activists,' said the scientist. '[The mainland] is an ideal place to make a little sacrifice and gain great advancement.'