Group targets the UW for animal testing misconduct

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Group targets the UW for animal testing misconduct

By Imana Gunawan,, Wednesday, March 12, 2014

After conducting a federal records request from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), a national research watchdog organization has filed a report targeting the UW and seeking fines for animal mistreatment during scientific research on campus.

The group, called Stop Animal Exploitation NOW! (SAEN), stated in a Feb. 5 press release that they filed a complaint with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), which oversees research laboratories. However the NIH’s Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare (OLAW) released a statement March 6 saying that SAEN’s reports concerning laboratory animals in several institutions are “not current.”

“SAEN obtained records through Freedom of Information Act requests of events either self-reported by institutions or investigated by the NIH Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare for noncompliance with PHS (Public Health Service) Policy,” the NIH press release stated. “These events have been managed by the institutions as required by the PHS Policy on Humane Care and Use of Laboratory Animals, reviewed by the OLAW, and the cases are closed.”

The NIH’s statement said the institutions against which SAEN filed a complaint — including the UW — are “in good standing” with OLAW.

According to SAEN’s press release, the records reveal that a research rabbit was discovered to have a fractured pelvis within 24 hours of an initial procedure for a project that studies chewing. In addition, 30 other rabbits were reportedly denied adequate post-surgical pain relief for a period of 10 months.

“SAEN has called for a USDA investigation, citations for improper animal handling, inadequate veterinary care, failure to follow experimental protocol, and unqualified personnel,” SAEN’s press release claimed. “Collectively, these infractions, if applied to all animals, could result in a fine in excess of $300,000.”

The USDA has previously fined the UW $10,893 for animal deaths, the press release claimed.

In the past, SAEN has also filed reports with the USDA for UW’s animal misconducts or violations of the Animal Welfare Act (AWA), a 1996 federal law that regulates the use and treatment of research animals and is the minimally acceptable standard for animal treatment and care. SAEN filed reports on the UW’s alleged misconducts in 2001, 2002, 2005, 2010, and 2012.

“We’ve been monitoring the University of Washington for a number of years because of the number of animals they used for experimentation and because of their history of violation of the Animal Welfare Act,” SAEN executive director Michael Budkie said.

Currently, researchers on campus can work with up to 20 different species, with 98 percent of animals being mice or fish, according to Dr. David Anderson, executive director of the Health Sciences Administration. The remaining is comprised of a variety of animals including mammals, birds, amphibians, and reptiles.

The animals covered by the AWA include live or dead cats, dogs, rabbits, nonhuman primates, hamsters, guinea pigs, and any other warm-blooded animal determined by the Secretary of Agriculture for research, pet use, or exhibition. However, the AWA excludes some animals including birds, lab rats or mice, farm animals, and all cold-blooded animals.

Budkie said the public has a right to know what goes on in research labs in state institutions because they are part of the state government and funded by the federal government.

“Given its funding, we should know if these laboratories are following [the regulations] clearly in situations like this,” he said. “[These violations] demonstrate not only that they’re not following the Animal Welfare Act, but it also raises questions about the qualifications of their personnel.”

Budkie added that they have received a response from the USDA saying that the matter is currently under investigation.

Despite SAEN’s call for a USDA investigation, however, the UW has already filed reports with the appropriate federal agencies before SAEN did, Anderson said. The UW had also undergone a USDA investigation and their report will be made public in the future.

“The short answer is we were never able to identify how [the rabbit incident] happened,” Anderson said. “The USDA has conducted a site visit and investigated … and will issue their report in the future.”

Anderson said SAEN’s claims are oftentimes recognized as “publicity stunts” by many in the animal research field.

He said animal use in research is one of the most heavily regulated activities. The UW answers to its own regulatory body, the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee, in addition to the USDA and the NIH through OLAW. All institutions using animals in research have the authority to enforce regulations through various types of measures.

“What typically happens is if we identify something, we report it, we investigate it,” Anderson said. “If we, in fact, find out that something has happened that’s outside the approvals of that project, then we notify the appropriate regulatory body and offer them the opportunity to come in and do their own investigation.”

Sometimes, the agencies can do unannounced visits to the laboratory and conduct evaluations, he added.

Anderson said another form of regulatory compliance includes training programs that personnel must go through before handling the animals, whether they are animal lab technicians, veterinary care staff, or even the psychological and behavioral well-being staff. Such training programs are offered by several groups including the Animal Use Training Program under the UW’s Office of Animal Welfare (OAW) and Attending Veterinarian, the Department of Comparative Medicine, and the Washington National Primate Research Center (WNPRC).

According to OAW Director Sally Thompson-Iritani, the OAW’s training program not only trains researchers and handlers on proper animal handling and care, but also teaches them about the laws and regulations on animal research. The specific training required for a project depends on the animal in use and the type of work being done, Thompson-Iritani said. Though the OAW’s program covers most animals, training that is specific to nonhuman-primate handling is overseen by the WNPRC.

Thompson-Iritani said although researchers at the UW use alternatives whenever possible, certain situations call for working with living organisms. The use of animals in research has long helped advance the biomedical field and basic sciences, she said.

“[It] leads to far-reaching benefits that are not just medicine that you can grab off the shelf,” she said. “A lot of the things that we’re looking into and evaluating have a significant impact in scientific discoveries that become more obvious as the science progresses; animals have been indispensable in making those discoveries.” 

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