EVERETT — It’s true. He does kill monkeys in his business.
And those dead monkeys mean advances in human health.
Mark Crane is second in command at the West Coast’s largest monkey lab, located in Everett.
The former Connecticut high school health teacher turned corporate vice president said the animal-rights activists who protest outside the biomedical research facility should reflect more on what happens inside.
SNBL USA, Crane said, is saving people’s lives through medical innovation.
The Japanese-owned company tests pharmaceutical drugs on monkeys and also breeds the primates for sale to other scientific researchers.
“We’re one of the few (groups of) people who can say we’re in the monkey business,” Crane said.
SNBL’s U.S. headquarters in Everett sit on a 29-acre site tucked behind tall trees and security fencing along Seaway Boulevard. A Shinto shrine stands outside, honoring animals used in research.
The facility, which currently houses 1,200 monkeys, has room for up to 4,000. That’s in addition to hundreds of rabbits and dogs, and thousands of rodents.
The purpose-bred animals live and die in captivity. Researchers use them in the development of new drugs.
Last month SNBL again came under fire after animal-rights activists obtained documents detailing the deaths of 40 monkeys at the company’s Texas breeding facility from 2010 to 2012.
“When you’re killing animals, that’s not supportive of their care,” said Michael Budkie with the Ohio-based group Stop Animal Exploitation Now.
Since coming to Everett in 1999, SNBL has kept a low profile and its operations behind closed doors.
“There’s a whole lot more to the story than `They kill monkeys in there,’ ” Crane told The Herald during a visit to the facility last month.
SNBL, Crane said, embraces the same ethic that guides medical doctors — do no harm.
What people think about animal research and its reality are different, he said. Researchers conduct the studies humanely.
In Everett, the company breeds, sells and conducts tests on cynomolgus monkeys, or “cynos,” which are commonly used in medical experimentation. A research monkey can sell for upward of $3,500.
The Food and Drug Administration mandates animal testing before pharmaceuticals can be researched in humans.
Researchers use primates to determine safety, dosage and side effects. That comes after first studying the drug in test tubes and rodents.
“It puts a parentheses of safety around humans,” Crane said.
SNBL keeps its primates in optimal condition as part of its study protocols. Any health problem that a monkey experiences during an experiment can be linked to the drug being tested.
“My monkeys are much healthier than you are,” Crane said. “We want to take care of these things because, frankly, that’s our business.”
Though SNBL’s client list remains under wraps due to the controversy surrounding animal testing, it includes several major public universities that conduct medical research, such as the University of Washington. The company tries to help researchers attain investigational new drug status for their products. That’s a permission slip for a pharmaceutical company or research institution to move on to testing in humans.
SNBL helps develop biologic products, such as vaccines, cancer medicines or gene therapies that address major medical defects.
“The testing is for significant human disease,” said Robert Rose, the lead veterinarian at the Everett site. Rose said he joined the medical research industry because he could affect the lives of 4,000 monkeys, instead of caring for one animal at a time, while simultaneously improving human health. He said it’s fulfilling to know that those animals are helping to develop new drugs, particularly those for children with serious medical conditions.
“My whole role here is animal welfare,” he said.
Rose said company veterinarians hold absolute veto power over any test or procedure.
If they determine an animal is suffering, research stops.
“There’s this idea that we’re grabbing random things like mad scientists,” Rose said. “It’s all very prescribed.”Rose is tasked with keeping the monkeys comfortable and alleviating pain during the testing.
“I’ve never seen anyone take any pleasure in hurting an animal,” said Alan Breau, a pharmacologist specializing in analytical chemistry. He oversees SNBL’s multimillion-dollar lab.
The Everett operation does not test the safety of consumer products such as cosmetics or shampoo. It conducts research into human medicine. The benefits often spill over into veterinary science, Rose said.
Many of the instruments in SNBL’s lab cost more than the average house. Everything that takes place is documented.
“This is a regulated industry,” Crane said. “It’s all about safety.”
SNBL employs more than 260 workers in Everett, including pharmacologists, chemists, veterinarians and those who clean up after the animals.It takes security seriously. Although SNBL invited a reporter to tour parts of the operation, the company would not allow photographs of its animals, most of its employees, or images documenting conditions inside. The company’s security people also resisted exterior photos of the buildings and parking lots.
The sterile facility has only a faint animal odor. The maze of long hallways, reminiscent of a hospital, features pass-through ports for moving specimens between secure areas.
The rooms that house the test animals are kept under positive air pressure to reduce the risk of germs entering. Tests can’t be conducted on sick animals.
“We never want an animal sick,” Breau said. “They’re more worried about us making the animals sick than them making us sick.”
Primate studies determine at what amount a drug starts producing side effects, such as weight loss or increased heart rate. If the reactions are serious enough, the studies stop, Crane said.
If a drug flops during human testing, the pharmaceutical company loses millions of dollars.
“The whole idea in drug development is to fail as soon as possible,” Crane said. “Most drugs fail.”
Only about one out of 100,000 compounds ever makes it to market, he said.
Breau said he has aided in the development of at least eight drugs in his career. Often, researchers don’t know whether a drug makes it to market because substances are not always named in the test phase.
One woman thanked Breau with tears of gratitude after she found out he helped develop a medicine that allowed her son to have a future. She told Breau the boy was diagnosed with schizophrenia and was unable to function until he was treated with olanzapine.
Her son now lives a normal life and has a career and a family.
“People don’t always realize the effect these drugs have on people’s lives. It’s amazing,” Breau said. “Nothing is more impactful than a pharmaceutical.”
Controversy comes with animal experimentation.
SNBL last month infuriated animal-rights activists after documents detailed how SNBL’s monkeys died in Texas. The animals’ causes of death included emaciation, hypothermia and overheating.
That information is accurate, but it doesn’t tell the whole story, Crane said.
Some animals refused to eat and became emaciated because they were already sick, he said.
Because not eating doesn’t warrant euthanasia, the animals were emaciated when they died.
“Monkeys get sick and die just like pets get sick and die,” Crane said.
The animals that died of hypothermia were being held in outdoor cages with external heaters. Two pigtail monkeys had apparently avoided the warmed area, Crane said.
One monkey died. The other was euthanized because it was too cold to recover.
Since the incident, Crane said, all cages have both indoor and outdoor areas. Pigtail monkeys are now kept indoors when the temperature drops, he said.
The monkeys that died of overheating were chased when it was hot outside.
To prevent future deaths, the company no longer captures monkeys when temperatures rise above 85 degrees.
In 2008, Stop Animal Exploitation Now focused attention on SNBL’s Everett operation after a monkey died when it was not removed from a cage that was sterilized in scalding water. The USDA did not impose sanctions over the incident. The company changed its cleaning procedure to prevent more deaths.
SNBL also faced complaints from the Humane Society and from a local animal rescue group, Pasado’s Safe Haven, that year.
Crane points to SNBL’s stamp of approval from the Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care as evidence of ethical practices inside. The nonprofit promotes humane treatment of animals in scientific research.
“An AAALAC accreditation basically means you know how to take care of your animals,” Crane said.
In addition to the benefit of a full veterinary hospital, SNBL employs what it describes as “animal enrichment” programs to ensure captive charges don’t become bored.
Monkey housing includes swings, toys and connections to other cages for socializing.
Animal caretakers learn the differences in what pleases a mouse as opposed to a rat. Mice receive cotton squares for building burrow nests while rats enjoy chew toys. SNBL employs someone full time to come up with entertainment for the animals.
The procedure for entering an animal room includes suiting up in a lab coat, protective glasses, a face shield, latex gloves and a hair net.Before walking into a space with about two dozen caged monkeys, Rose warned that the primates might react with fear because they recognize him as the one with the needles. Instead, the monkeys came forward in their cages.
“They’re curious. They’re not afraid,” Crane said. The monkeys chattered at him for treats.
In the wild, monkeys forage for their food and have to hide from predators. Here, Crane said, the monkeys receive a variety of food, including popcorn, pickles, nuts and fresh produce such as carrots, potatoes, grapes, apples and, of course, bananas. The primates also eat monkey chow, which Purina makes specifically for animals in research. They are also given treats, such as Fruit Loops.
The food is often put into toys or pieces of turf to simulate the monkeys’ natural foraging experience. The people at SNBL do everything they can to keep the monkeys happy, Rose said.
“These monkeys in cages are actually saving human lives — a lot of them,” he said.