November 27, 1999
Threatening letters with razor blades hidden in the envelopes don't scare Pete Gerone. Neither do firecrackers set off on the front steps of his home in the middle of the night. The director of the Tulane Regional Primate Research Center, due to retire in January, is accustomed to clandestine attacks by animal-rights groups who protest the center's research on monkeys.
"It's something you constantly have to deal with," Gerone says of the threats from animal-rights extremists. "But it's not as big a problem as it may appear to the outside, as far as I'm concerned. We take this somewhat in stride."
Since he started as director of the primate center in 1971, Gerone has chosen not to hide from criticism of animal research, focusing attention instead on the accomplishments made at his center and the seven other primate research centers across the country supported by the National Institutes of Health.
As he readies for retirement, Gerone, 71, reflected on his tenure and the achievements of the center's staff and faculty. "I've seen so many things happen that I couldn't have predicted 28 years ago," he says.
AIDS, cancer, Lyme disease, leprosy, malaria and filariasis are some of the diseases that scientists have researched during the 35 years of the center's existence. Some of the most recent accomplishments at the center include contributions to the discovery that administering the AIDS drug AZT to pregnant HIV-positive mothers greatly reduces the transmission of the virus to the fetus.
The center also played a part in developing a diagnostic test for Lyme disease, an illness caused by a bacterium spread through the bite of infected ticks. When Gerone became director of the center, most of the research focused on primate behavior.
With his arrival, the center turned toward infectious disease research and the center's monkey population began to grow, from 800 in 1971 to 5,000 today. Rhesus monkeys make up the majority of the primate population, which comprises 11 different species.
About three-quarters of the population are in breeding programs that allow the center to produce animals for research at Tulane as well as a few other centers. The primate center records more than $10 million in grant support annually and currently employs about 160 people. The researchers and staff at the center are its greatest resource, Gerone says. "One of the important factors that have made this job so much fun for me has been the people I work with. We have a great group of people here," he says.
Gerone stresses that the primate center functions as part of a research team that transfers scientific discoveries from the laboratory to applications in humans. Since 92 percent of the genetic makeup of the rhesus monkey is identical to that of a human, he says the animal is a close surrogate for humans in experimental studies.
In the future, as Tulane's program in the emerging field of gene therapy grows, the primate center will be part of the scientific team that examines the possibility of fighting disease by replacing defective genes with good genes.
"I'm sure the primate center is going to play a big role as a collaborator with the medical center on gene therapy research," he says. Looking back at his tenure as director, Gerone says the biggest challenge he faced during his time at Tulane was the center's decision to take in the 15 so-called Silver Spring monkeys in 1986.
Five years earlier, these monkeys were taken from a federal research laboratory in Silver Spring, Md., following allegations of mistreatment from animal-rights groups. Although these groups fought to send the animals to an organization with a facility devoted to caring for primates previously involved in research, the National Institutes of Health maintained ownership of the monkeys, which had been used to study the regeneration of nerve cells and restoration of function after injury to sensory nerves.
Looking for a suitable place for the one rhesus and 14 cynomolgus monkeys to live out the rest of their lives, the NIH approached Gerone and asked Tulane to take the animals.
"We had the personnel and the veterinarians to take care of these animals. They couldn't have gotten better medical care anywhere in the world," Gerone says. "I said, 'What have we got to lose?' Accepting the monkeys brought protesters to both the primate center and Gibson Hall. People from around the country, including members of Congress, called and wrote the university urging it to release the monkeys," Gerone says. "It was tough for any university to stand up to something like that, but Tulane did," he says. "We told people the other side of the story and, when we did, that usually mitigated their enthusiasm."
All of the monkeys have since died--some of natural causes and some after they were euthanized due to bad health. Tulane faced further court battles and protests when neuroscientists performed tests on the brains of the animals while they were under anesthesia just prior to being put to sleep.
"People ask me whether I was ever sorry we took [the Silver Spring monkeys]," Gerone says. "Hell no, I'm not only not sorry, I'd do it again tomorrow." To Gerone, taking in these animals was a way to stand up for the benefits of primate research to the scientific community.
During his 28 years at Tulane, he has never shied away from talking to the media about animal research or debating his critics. In the end, this is a battle for the minds of the public, Gerone says. "If they're going to continue to get this one-sided propaganda from the animal rights people saying that everything we do is cruel and unnecessary, the public is going to begin to believe it."
Debbie Grant, assistant vice president of university communications, has worked closely with Gerone during his tenure. She says that Gerone's unflagging enthusiasm for his work makes him an ideal person to head the primate center.
"Pete never shies away from a difficult situation and he is always completely prepared, and thats part of what I will miss about him," Grant says. "He is completely dedicated to what he does and he takes delight in every aspect of his job, from talking to people and showing them around the primate center to interviews with the national press. He loves what he does and that is obvious in how he responds to every situation."
President Scott Cowen says Gerone made the primate center one of the most respected in the country. "Pete has provided extraordinary leadership in the growth and development of the primate center," Cowen says. "The center is very important to the university because it is a unique resource for our medical research. It gives us a competitive advantage in certain types of research and attracts significant research grants from the federal government. Pete is a fine scholar, a very effective leader, and a wonderful human being," he adds. "I will miss all of these qualities when he retires."
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