Public Release: 

Yerkes to develop first transgenic nonhuman primate model for inherited neurodegenerative diseases

$1.5 million NIH grant will support four-year study to develop treatment and prevention options for Huntington's disease

Emory University Health Sciences Center

ATLANTA - In the first study of its kind, researchers at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center of Emory University will develop a transgenic nonhuman primate model for inherited, neurodegenerative diseases. The goal of this four-year, National Institutes of Health (NIH)-sponsored study is to develop treatment and prevention options specifically for Huntington's disease.

Anthony Chan, DVM, PhD, an assistant professor at the Yerkes Research Center and the department of human genetics at Emory, and his research team will study the onset and progression of Huntington's disease, a genetic, neurodegenerative disorder that causes uncontrolled movements, loss of mental processing capabilities and emotional disturbance, and compare the neurological changes that take place in the transgenic model with the neurology of human Huntington's disease patients in order to develop treatments and preventions. This pioneering study serves as an example of the critical role nonhuman primates play in better understanding genetic and neurological diseases and disorders in humans.

Once they develop the transgenic nonhuman primate model of Huntington's disease, Chan's research team will use the Yerkes Research Center's new imaging technology to monitor high-resolution magnetic resonance imaging scans of the nonhuman primate's active brain while simultaneously conducting behavioral and cognitive studies. This novel approach will provide the researchers a broader, more comprehensive view of the disease than has ever been established.

Researchers have used transgenic mouse models for Huntington's disease to identify the genetic defect that causes the disorder, however, more clinical data are needed to study disease development.

"Neurodegenerative diseases like Huntington's disease are complex disorders that involve genetic defects and physiological changes including the death of neurons that lead to a wasting away of the brain," said Dr. Chan. "Because of their genetic and behavioral similarities with humans, transgenic nonhuman primate models will allow us to clarify the correlation between defects and neurological changes caused by neurodegenerative diseases."

Chan's research team joins other neuroscientists at Yerkes who are studying the genetic basis of neurodegenerative diseases, including Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases. "This study, along with other programs currently taking place at Yerkes, places us on the forefront of neuroscience research," said Stuart Zola, PhD, director of the Yerkes Research Center and the study's co-investigator who will lead the behavioral assessments. "Access to Emory's department of human genetics, our collaborations with the department of neurology and our new brain imaging center make Yerkes one of the few places in the world where this type of study can be done."

"We have a better understanding of the genetic defects associated with Huntington's disease than we do of other neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson's," said Steve Warren, PhD, chairman of Emory's Department of Human Genetics. "Establishing this nonhuman primate model for Huntington's disease is critical to providing a foundation for studying the genetic causes of other neurodegenerative diseases."

"This study allows Yerkes to lead the way toward a better understanding of neurodegeneration, and one day, toward developing better treatment options for an array of neurodegenerative diseases and disorders," said Zola.

Before joining the Yerkes Research Center, Chan was a staff scientist at the Oregon National Primate Research Center. While there, he and his colleagues created ANDi, the world's first genetically modified nonhuman primate, to assist in developing primate models of human diseases, such as Alzheimer's, diabetes and heart disease, that will offer more opportunities to test new drugs, gene therapy and modified stem cells.


The Yerkes National Primate Research Center of Emory University is one of eight National Primate Research Centers funded by the National Institutes of Health. The Yerkes Research Center is a recognized leader for its biomedical and behavioral studies with nonhuman primates, which provide a critical link between research with small laboratory animals and the clinical trials performed in humans. Yerkes researchers are on the forefront of developing vaccines for AIDS and malaria, and treatments for cocaine addiction and Parkinson's disease. Yerkes researchers also are leading programs to better understand the aging process, pioneer organ transplant procedures and provide safer drugs to organ transplant recipients, determine the behavioral effects of hormone replacement therapy, prevent early onset vision disorders and shed light on human behavioral evolution.

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