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Stanford University School of Medicine

Learning about biology and human disease from lemurs

For the past six years, a team of researchers from Stanford has been foraging the jungle in Madagascar, catching mouse lemurs and sampling the blood of the small primates before releasing them back into the wild.

Lemurs, it turns out, suffer from many of the ailments that humans do, like obesity, high cholesterol and cardiovascular problems. And many of the animals carry genetic traits for these ailments, making them natural models for studying primate biology and disease and developing new treatments that could benefit people as well as lemurs, Stanford researchers have found.

"I think mouse lemurs have great potential for our understanding of primate biology, behavior and conservation, in the same way that fruit flies and mice over the last 30 or 40 years have transformed our understanding of developmental biology and many other areas of biology and medicine," said Stanford's Mark Krasnow, MD, PhD. "Some of the most fascinating and important questions that need to be answered are primate-specific. For those, we really need something besides humans to complement the work that has been done in fruit flies and mice."

The first report on his team's work with lemurs, the world's smallest primates, appears in today's issue of the journal Genetics.

The project was born out of Krasnow's frustration with mouse models, which can be useful but don't always reflect aspects of human biology and disease. Mice, after all, are a long way genetically from people. So Krasnow asked three of his summer interns to look for a better model. By the end of the summer, they'd identified the lemur as an ideal candidate, as these animals are small (about double the size of a mouse), abundant, quick to develop and docile enough to make them easy to study. And because they are primates, they develop some of the same neurologic conditions, such as Alzheimer's and eye problems, that impact people and could help in the understanding of these disorders, according to Stanford veterinarian Megan Albertelli, PhD, DVM, a member of the team.

"I saw that they were promising models for Alzheimer's disease," she told me "Alzheimer's is a condition that is hard to model in other animal species, so that was very exciting."

Working in a Stanford-funded lab in the island nation, the researchers already have identified more than 20 mouse lemurs with distinct genetic traits, including obesity, high cholesterol, high blood sugar, cardiac arrhythmias, progressive eye disease and motor and personality disorders, the researchers report.  So instead of having to create "knockout" mice - animals with customized genes - researchers could study naturally occurring variants found among the animals in the wild, Krasnow said.

He and other Stanford scientists are also teaching Malagasy youngsters about the unique biology and ecology of Madagascar, considered one of the world's leading "hotspots," and training these youth to be the scientists of the future.

"We are trying to do this in a way that is respectful and will help the lemurs and people of Madagascar, while enlightening many aspects of primary biology and human disease," he said.

Previously: In Madagascar, Stanford researchers are working to improve health -- and studying lemurs
Photo by Arjan Haverkamp

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