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From 13 February 2005 Issue

Animal Research:

A Hidden World Working behind a self-imposed, legally debatable cloak of secrecy, CU's Health Sciences Center withholds from the public virtually all information about its animal-research programs.

By Clay Evans, Camera Staff Writer
December 5, 2004

If you had to pick a terrorist out of a police lineup, Rita Anderson would surely be the least likely candidate. The 58-year-old grandmother and Gunbarrel resident laughs frequently, is magnanimous and polite even with adversaries, and if she's prideful about anything, it's her children, grandchildren and pets.

But because of her tireless, non-violent work as an animal advocate including an effort that helped persuade the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center to stop performing surgery on live dogs for its physiology courses some find her irritating, perhaps even dangerous.

"Ms. Anderson supports PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), and PETA supports the legal defense of individuals in the ALF (Animal Liberation Front) who have committed crimes," says Dr. John Sladek, vice chancellor for research at the Health Sciences Center. "And we can't assume that (terrorism) won't happen here."

Anderson, who since last year has focused her efforts on winning the release of a small colony of bonnet macaque monkeys at the Health Sciences Center, is amused that she is viewed by anyone as a threat, and notes that she has no connection to PETA.

"To put me in the category of a terrorist, as somebody who would do something violent, is absurd," she says. "I want things to be ethical and nonviolent. ... I have concerns for the lives of the animals."

Anderson may annoy the powers that be at the Health Sciences Center with her persistent requests for documents and occasional peaceful demonstrations but if she weren't looking out for the welfare of animal research subjects, these days it's not clear who else would.

Like all other institutions that use animals for research, the Health Sciences Center is required by the federal Animal Welfare Act to appoint an Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee, or IACUC, to ensure the ethical treatment of animal subjects, approve research protocols and inspect animal facilities, among many other duties. But also like many institutions, the Health Sciences Center has shrouded its IACUC in secrecy, refusing public attendance at meetings, withholding even the identities of committee members and censoring virtually all information about animal research from public documents.

Sladek and others argue that the IACUC is essentially exempt from Colorado open-records and open-meetings laws, because of alleged threats from activists: "I would rather resign my position than reveal our IACUC members," Sladek says.

"I'm amazed that the public accepts the secrecy," says Dr. Christopher Kuni, one of the chairs of the Health Sciences Center's analogous board governing treatment of human subjects, the Institutional Review Board.

But former IACUC members and staff all of whom requested anonymity, because they still work in biomedical research and fear retaliation say that Sladek and other administrators have used that veil of secrecy to conceal actions in violation of widely accepted ethics regarding animal use, including: keeping the macaque colony, even when the animals were not being used for research, and using public money to maintain it; a plan to breed the monkeys and sell the embryos to outside institutions, for revenue, not research; firing a well-respected veterinarian and dumping IACUC members who raised objections to those plans; and failing to adhere to a U.S. Department of Agriculture timeline to move the monkeys from a facility deemed to be "in poor condition."

"I can't understand what the hell got into these people," one former IACUC member said. "They had an exemplary program. Then the whole thing went to hell in a handbasket."

The story begins with the small colony of macaques, used by researcher Mark Laudenslager in "maternal separation" experiments since 1986. With Laudenslager's National Institutes of Health grant slated to expire, his active monkey research ceased in October 2003.

That's when Anderson began urging the school to release the monkeys to a sanctuary. During a Denver visit, famed primate researcher Jane Goodall seconded Anderson's notion.

But Sladek sent Anderson a letter indicating that the Health Sciences Center would be willing to release the monkeys only if the school received an estimated $10,000 to $15,000 per monkey (there were 34 at the time) to replace them.

Some think that's outrageous.

The monkeys "were part of federally funded research. ... CU is now holding them ransom when they have never paid a dime for their upkeep," says a former IACUC member.

Sladek says the figure he cited has been misunderstood.

"It's been described as a demand on our part, which it never was," he said during a Sept. 9 interview at the Health Sciences Center's new Fitzsimons campus. "It was just realistic: If we were to release the colony and replace it ... that is approximately what the (new) animals would cost."

Yet former IACUC members say that an "exit strategy" for the monkeys was an explicit condition under which Laudenslager's research was approved by the IACUC in early 2002. IACUC minutes support that contention.

"The primates are not euthanized at the end of these studies. Previously primates that were no longer used on studies were sold or transferred to other investigators. At the present time, there is no market for these animals," read the minutes from the Nov. 12, 2001, IACUC meeting.

The IACUC was primarily concerned that the institution not have to pay to keep monkeys that were not being used in research. It approved Laudenslager's protocol on Jan. 14, 2002, only after receiving assurances that the monkeys would be transferred to a research facility in California when his research ended.

Despite that, the monkeys were kept by the Health Sciences Center and even bred between the time Laudenslager's grant ran out, in January, and July, when he obtained a new one. Laudenslager himself sent a series of increasingly frantic e-mails to the National Institutes of Health from January to July, begging for money.

"(A)t the end of the current fiscal year, there will be no finds (sic) to cover these monkey's (sic) per diems and the university will be forced to put them up for sale," he wrote on June 14.

Laudenslager also wrote that, "The vice chancellor's office (John Sladek) has covered the per diem expenses for an extended period of time (over a year)."

Asked if the university had paid to support the monkeys at any time, Sladek said he thought Laudenslager's "new grant" had been awarded in late winter or early spring in fact, it wasn't until July and that there was therefore no "gap" in funding.

But records indicate otherwise. And that makes some IACUC members who approved the Laudenslager protocol angry.

"We didn't want to approve the protocol until it was clear what the ultimate dispensation of the monkeys was going to be," says one. "At the time, I'd have rather they been euthanized humanely than allowed to live on forever doing research experiments."

So why violate your own rules to keep such a relatively small colony of macaques on hand? Both Sladek and Health Sciences Center spokeswoman Sarah Ellis told the Daily Camera that the monkeys were a "magnet" for further grant money.

But some former IACUC members argue that Health Sciences Center administrators have an even more mercenary goal in mind: Breeding the monkeys, not for research, but so the Health Sciences Center can sell embryos to other institutions and raise money.

In April, May and June 2003, the IACUC mulled over, and finally rejected "protocol #67003703" also known as the "Sladek protocol," after its principal investigator because the committee was unable to discern a "research element."

Sladek says the research element was there for all to see: "The research involved the use of embryonic tissue ... used to replace cells lost to Parkinson's disease" in a colony of older bonnet macaques in at the Chicago Medical School, on a project where Sladek is listed as a co-investigator.

However, four people involved with rejecting the Sladek protocol say that it also included a proposal to breed the macaques and sell embryos for stem-cell research, to financially support the colony.

"I was assigned to review the protocol. It was to create embryos for sale," says one former IACUC member. "I had some concerns about just creating (embryos) for sale, so I asked questions: What is the use going to be, how many are we talking about? Are we just trying to make money for the research program? All we were looking for was scientific justification."

But neither the IACUC, nor then-staff veterinarian Ron Banks, could tease out any such justification.

"The Sladek protocol came out of the blue ... and it struck me as kind of weird," says a former IACUC member. "I thought, 'Oh my God, are we now going into the monkey embryo business?' Was this something we really wanted to be doing? I did not think this was a good idea."

A bad idea, if for no other reason than public relations: If the Health Sciences Center became known as a place where monkeys were kept, caged and bred primarily for money, not the advancement of science or human health, the school would no doubt become a target for vigorous protests. But more importantly, IACUC members felt the benefit money for the school wasn't worth putting the monkeys through repeated breeding and what amounts to surgical abortion.

Sladek denies that he intended to turn the Health Sciences Center into an embryo factory: "Oh, God, no. That's a total misconception."

The Health Sciences Center legal office extensively censored the IACUC minutes from April, May and June 2003 meetings, at which the Sladek protocol was discussed. Sladek says he "wouldn't have a problem with the public knowing the details," but refused to show uncensored copies of the minutes or the protocol itself to the Daily Camera. He also sent e-mails to Health Sciences Center employees warning them against cooperating with reporters.

In fact, Chancellor James Shore who last month announced that he is resigning told CU Regent Jim Martin that he could not have uncensored minutes, even though the regents were scheduled to discuss issues surrounding the monkey colony at their Dec. 8-9 meetings. (Regents' chair Tom Lucero took the item off the published agenda last week, citing a need to address issues surrounding the CU-Boulder Athletic Department. He told Anderson that the issue would be placed back on the agenda in the next month or two.)

"Nothing undermines the confidence in a public institution more than a failure to produce evidence or documents that are requested by the public," Martin says. "On issues like (animal research), reasonable people can disagree. But if one side refuses to provide the information necessary to have a meaningful discussion, that's not good-faith communication."

So why all the secrecy, if the protocol is as innocent as described, given that Sladek has been very public about his work with monkey embryos and stem cells? It's not animal advocates he's worried about, he says, but people opposed to human abortion and stem-cell research.

Meanwhile, the flaps over the Laudenslager and Sladek protocols allowed Sladek to retool a previously recalcitrant IACUC. He refused to reappoint a dissenting member and fired Banks shortly after his protocol was denied (the USDA is currently investigating alleged violations of the Animal Welfare Act surrounding Banks' firing) which inspired several IACUC members to resign.

"The credibility, independence, and neutrality of the IACUC are critical to the university's standing among government agencies ..., private citizens, and investigators both here and at other institutions," wrote former member Ethan Carter in a Sept. 10, 2003, resignation letter to Sladek. "Your actions have undermined the very foundation of the committee on all of these fronts."

Laudenslager's new grant money finally arrived in July, paving the way for research into the way alcohol use may determine aggressive or impulsive behavior among macaques.

Not everybody considers it vital research.

"Some 60 years of offering alcohol to animals has produced no fundamental insights into the causes of this self-destructive behavior (in humans), or even a convincing analogue of pathological drinking," says Vincent P. Dole of the Laboratory of the Biology of the Addictive Diseases at New York's Rockefeller University.

As for Sladek's work, he won't say whether the reconstituted IACUC approved a new version of his once-rejected protocol. But he acknowledges that the macaques were taken off birth control in January and have been breeding since.

Which presumably means that the Health Sciences Center, having ignored previous protocols, will keep the macaques at least until Laudenslager's current grant runs out in May 2009. But just where they will live remains to be seen.

The current primate facility was found to be "in poor condition" and had problems "maintaining appropriate temperatures" for tropical macaques, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service report dated July 29, 2003.

In response, the Health Sciences Center came up with a plan to move the monkeys to an existing building on the Fitzsimons campus. In a Nov. 21, 2003 letter, R. Ridenour, DVM of the USDA/APHIS Western Region gave the Health Sciences Center "until October 1, 2004, to complete your planned renovations of, and relocating animals into" that building. The letter advised Sladek that, "Should complications arise that may interfere with your ability to meet this timeline, please contact us immediately."

Health Sciences Center spokeswoman Sarah Ellis denied a reporter's August request to tour the new, as-yet-unoccupied facility, because the school didn't want to tip off animal-rights "terrorists" her word to its location. (Ellis says she doesn't "know specifically of threats," but says that Laudenslager and other researchers had received "death threats" by phone.)

But in a Sept. 9 interview, Sladek and Ellis gave a very different story: There is no new facility to tour. Sladek pointed at a vacant lot on the Fitzsimons campus where a primate vivarium is expected to be built by 2008. In the meantime, the school plans to move rodents out of facilities at Ninth Street and Colorado Avenue in Denver, and renovate them for primate use. Sladek said "I hope" the monkeys will be moved by December.

Asked if he had notified the USDA of the change in plans, Sladek said, "We will advise USDA that the plan has been delayed and modified." He sent a letter dated Sept. 30 one day before a deadline set in 2003 indicating that "Complications have arisen," and asking for an extension to Jan. 1, 2005.

The fate of three dozen research monkeys an admittedly small colony may not concern many people. But the extreme secrecy around CU's animal research should.

From within its self-imposed, legally debatable cloak of secrecy, the Health Sciences Center has cut the public off from virtually all information about its animal research programs.

Do the people of Colorado want the Health Sciences Center to maintain a perpetual "boutique" colony of small primates for the sole purpose of keeping a single researcher in grant money, or as "embryo factories" whose oddly circular purpose is to provide for the keeping of monkeys?

They may, or they may not. But for now, administrators at Colorado's only comprehensive medical university aren't even willing to engage them in the conversation. Instead, they have drawn a curtain around all animal research, rid themselves of dissenters, and announced that it's nobody's business but their own.

And Rita Anderson says that's not right. Health Sciences Center officials can tar her with whatever label they want, she says, but somebody has to look out for the animals.

"I simply want to obtain the release of the monkeys through legal, ethical means," she says. "I have been up front with (Health Sciences Center officials), and I would appreciate their being up front with me."

For More Information
www.freetheCU34.org

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