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Jay Kaplan, PhD

Jay Kaplan, PhD

Jay Kaplan, PhD, director of the Wake Forest Center for Comparative Medicine Research, has a reputation for pioneering research in the development and application of nonhuman primates studies to resolve problems in human health. His efforts over the past several decades have led to the creation of a world-class center for preclinical research, poised to take on some of the most challenging diseases facing society and an ideal partner for industry to contract research for drug and device development.


Jay Kaplan, PhD, renowned comparative medicine expert

Kaplan’s journey began on a secluded island off the coast of Puerto Rico in the 1970s. As part of his dissertation work as a biological anthropologist, he spent three years observing a nonhuman primate colony; during this time, he was most intrigued by the relationship between the behavior of monkeys and disease.

After completing his doctorate at Northwestern University, Kaplan took a position at the University of Alabama and narrowed his area of research to the psychosocial component of disease. He honed in on the impacts of stress on cardiovascular disease, a rich area of study, as the current topics in the media were newly-coined personality types (e.g., ‘A’, or hard driving and hostile) in relation to the ongoing heart disease epidemic.

As Kaplan delved into this research, he was reminded of the nonhuman primate colony he observed while a graduate student. He used those observations to develop hypotheses about the influence of behavior on disease, and in particular the effect of stress on risk for cardiovascular disease. In doing so, he conducted some of the first studies that applied nonhuman primates to study sex differences in the health effects of psychosocial stress. These studies, initiated three decades ago, were seminal in bringing credibility to the study of women’s health.

While still in the exploratory stages of his research, Kaplan met Thomas Clarkson, DVM. Clarkson, an established researcher and department head at Wake Forest School of Medicine, was one of the key thought leaders driving the study of psychosocial factors on human disease and an originator of the translational sciences movement.

Kaplan and Clarkson co-authored a grant in 1978, and Kaplan was subsequently offered a job at Wake Forest. He reflects: “I came with an idea and [Wake Forest] was the only place in the country that would engage in this kind of research.” In 1979, Kaplan moved to Winston-Salem, NC, to join Clarkson’s pioneering translational medicine research group.

The team dived into cardiovascular research, and developed new preclinical models using larger and more complex animal types than what was standard during the 1980s. Kaplan’s anthropological background influenced the way he viewed human disease, and he became a significant proponent of matching the dietary and behavioral systems of the animal species to the human condition. He discovered numerous advantages of using Old World nonhuman primates, primates indigenous to the Eastern hemisphere, in preclinical research, and he dedicated himself to developing a world-class nonhuman primate center.

The Center for Comparative Medicine Research was established in 1961, and under Clarkson and then Kaplan’s direction has become a leading center for the application of nonhuman primate models to the investigation of diseases of human relevance. Kaplan and his collaborators have continued to pursue cardiovascular research, but over the past 15 years have greatly expanded the scope of the Center. For example, Kaplan’s ongoing emphasis on sex differences has paved the path for an extensive program in Women’s Health at Wake Forest.

Obesity, diabetes, oncology, pain and substance abuse are other areas of focus that have been cultivated at the Center. Most recently, Kaplan and a team of immunologists have developed a new area of expertise in pediatrics by establishing one of the nation’s few nonhuman primate neonatal nurseries and likely the only one dedicated to translational sciences. This new focus area is once again a pioneering move to address an underserved and under-modeled area of research – pediatric medicine.

Jay Kaplan has established a center that is ideal for moving ideas from basic science to clinical trials. The Center is well equipped for both academic and industry projects. It is certified by the USDA and AAALAC, is staffed by both basic scientists and a large number of research trained veterinarians, includes a world-class diet formulation laboratory, sustains a dedicated 200-acre research facility with numerous animal species, and offers a best-fit research philosophy.

Jay Kaplan is a thought leader in animal model research, and has over 35 years of experience in preclinical models of human disease and behavior, including:

  • Sex differences and disease
  • Phenomena associated with aging
  • Pediatrics and infectious disease
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Diabetes & obesity
  • Pain and addiction