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By Tracy Vedder
SEATTLE -- In a hidden part of the University of Washington campus, hundreds of monkeys live and die for research. They undergo experimental surgeries and tests until their usefulness is over.
The federal government pays the university millions for this research. But some of those millions are in jeopardy as the university is under investigation because of unauthorized surgeries on monkeys.
Every year, UW scientists use hundreds of monkeys -- from babies to adults -- for all types of research that may help thousands of people.
Primate Center Director Dave Anderson offers one example of how their research helps: "We have other investigators in our Primate Center looking at ways to address, say, people who have strokes or people who have spinal chord injuries."
But over the past year and a half, one group of researchers at the university has been at the center of a series of investigations for performing dozens of unauthorized surgeries on monkeys.
"I think these are very serious violations," says PETA Primatologist Debra Durham. "They're surgeries on animals' heads and on their eyes."
Researchers implant coils on the monkeys' eyeballs, thread wires up the skull and put a metal cylinder - sometimes two - into holes drilled in the monkey's skull.
Through public disclosure requests we obtained thousands of pages of internal e-mails and reports from the UW and federal agencies. Some of the surgeries were approved, many more were not. We found evidence that some monkeys underwent a dozen or more surgeries, as the eye coils and head chambers were removed and replaced, again and again.
Durham has read the monkeys' medical records and says there is evidence many of them suffered. Describing one monkey, she says he, "pulls out his hair, he self-mutilates, he drinks his own urine."
Federal law requires all of the UW's animal researchers and experiments to be approved and enforced by the university's animal oversight group, the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC). Nona Phillips, executive secretary of the committee, says their number-one concern is "humane treatment of the animals in the course of scientifically necessary research."
But there is evidence the IACUC ignored warnings about problems with too many surgeries on monkeys, and that even when a federal agency found protocol violations the committee chose to close the investigation rather than look deeper.
It started nearly two years ago when an international accrediting agency, the Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care International, put the University on probation. That was primarily for problems with its buildings and facilities -- the association's main focus.
But AAALAC also questioned the number of experimental surgeries on monkeys, as internal e-mails we found clearly show. When asked how UW's IACUC responded to those questions, Phillips said, "Well, AAALAC didn't give us a deficiency or anything like that about the number of surgeries performed on any given animal, it's up to the IACUC to approve those."
So the UW's oversight committee did nothing. Then, five months later at the end of October 2006, the USDA found that three of UW researcher Albert Fuchs' monkeys had had many more surgeries than the rules allowed.
As required, IACUC's Nona Phillips reported the violations with a phone call to UW Compliance Officer Sue Clausen. The Problem Solvers found handwritten notes of that conversation, where Clausen writes "it's probably the tip of the iceberg," and, referring to Phillips, "she's going to keep her head in sand on this."
When asked to what that referred, Phillips replied, "I really don't know Tracy."
So we asked Compliance Officer Clausen.
"I literally stood and wrote notes while she talked," Clausen said, adding that the notes aren't her deductions or inferences. What she wrote down, she said, are the words Nona Phillips actually used. But Clausen claims what Phillips said isn't what she meant.
When we asked Clausen if it's okay for Phillips as the head of the UW's Office of Animal Welfare to say that she's going to keep her head in the sand, Clausen replied, "I'm saying that she used terminology that didn't reflect her intent to not do the right thing. To presume that any of this implies that she's not looking out for the animals, that she's not doing her job is, well, ridiculous."
But after the USDA found violations, no one from the IACUC looked to see if there were more unauthorized surgeries.
Phillips admits the oversight committee didn't examine the rest of the monkeys in Dr. Fuchs' protocol, they didn't look at the other monkeys' medical records, they didn't check his lab logs and they didn't look at any other researchers to see if there were other problems.
Phillips said they didn't look further, "because we had no reason to think that the USDA had not identified all of the issues."
The university's IACUC closed the case on Dr. Fuchs with a letter of reprimand.
PETA's Durham called the matter shameful, and believes the University did put its head in the sand. "And when they choose to ignore violations, they're choosing to ignore suffering," she said.
PETA complained to the National Institutes of Health, which pays hundreds of millions of dollars to the University of Washington for animal research.
The NIH reopened the investigation and, only then did IACUC find that instead of one researcher and three monkeys subjected to too many experimental surgeries, there were 14 monkeys, five UW researchers, and 41 unauthorized surgeries.
The UW insists it did everything it should.
"No one was trying to cover it up," says Primate Center Director Anderson, "everyone was being absolutely forthright and honest about it."
The researchers under investigation brought in nearly $9 million in federal grant money. The NIH says it could be a couple more months before they determine how much of that money the university has to pay back.
Since the feds reopened their investigation, the UW has launched its own new oversight effort with paid staff to visit each research lab, examine their log books, and check their animals. But there are between 600 and 700 animal experiments going on at any one time at the UW, so it's an enormous task.
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