UW-Madison Suspends Researcher Over Animal Welfare Problems

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UW-Madison Suspends Researcher Over Animal Welfare Problems

By Deborah Ziff on Wisconsin State Journal
March 2010

UW-Madison suspended a professor who studies Parkinson's and other brain diseases from working with animals last year, a rare move prompted by what officials called a "clear pattern" of problems with animal welfare, according to university records released this week.

University administrators say researcher Michele Basso has had a bumpy history, citing a lack of respect for veterinarians, incomplete record-keeping and instances where monkeys developed brain injuries. But Basso said she hasn't violated any rules. She said the charges against her are vague, and that the university knew that her experiments were risky when they approved them.

Her animal research has since been reinstated, but her experiments are under strict supervision, officials said.

The Wisconsin State Journal requested documents in Basso's case, which was concluded only a few days ago, after a federal agency cited UW-Madison for not reporting to them that her research was suspended.

It is unusual for the university to suspend a main researcher's work with animals, and officials say they only do so when they perceive that the risks to animals outweigh the benefits to science and medicine. The last time a faculty member lost the privilege to work with monkeys was in 2004.

With nearly 2,000 monkeys housed on campus, UW-Madison's animal research is highly scrutinized internally, by federal agencies and by animal rights' activists.

Following this case and a U.S. Department of Agriculture report in December that found 20 animal care violations, Chancellor Biddy Martin called for an external review of the university's animal oversight. That report, completed last month by James Fox, a veterinarian and director of comparative medicine at MIT, did not find any serious problems, but made some suggestions to strengthen the campus' oversight committees.
The university is also considering a reorganization of its vast research enterprise, in part to better comply with federal regulations.

Basso, an associate professor in the department of physiology, studies the mind to learn more about diseases that debilitate movement like Parkinson's and Huntington's. Her experiments, which are approved by the university, involve teaching monkeys to play video games, then probing into their skulls to correlate brain activity with eye movement. Basso, who has been at UW-Madison since 2000, brings in nearly $1 million in research funding each year.

The experiments Basso conducts have inherent risks. But university officials charge that she has not always handled complications properly.

Basso has had "significant difficulties" with her experiments, "many more than other investigators using the same model in the same animal care unit with the same veterinary staff," wrote Janet Welter, chief campus veterinarian in a report.

But Basso said she works with more monkeys and does more experiments than other scientists doing similar research on campus, a statement affirmed by Eric Sandgren, who oversees the university's animal program.

The All-Campus Animal Care Committee, the oversight committee that ultimately suspended Basso in February 2009, began looking at her case after the material surrounding the monkey's brain was inadvertently pierced during a June 2008 surgery. The monkey, Chip, was bleeding internally and needed to be euthanized the next day.

The committee alleged that Basso should have called a veterinarian when the monkey's health did not improve. In that case, Basso said there was a miscommunication about alerting the veterinarian.

Basso said she doesn't think she did anything wrong and that the charges don't amount to violations of animal welfare law.

"As a person, as a scientist, we care very deeply for the animals we work with," she said. "We work with these animals for a long time, very closely, and we have a profound compassion for them."

Basso said she spent a portion of discretionary grant money to buy a play cage for her monkeys.

Basso's animal research privileges were reinstated in October, but veterinary staff must supervise all her experiments. She won't be allowed to make decisions about the health or medical care of animals and the attending veterinarian for her program must give monthly reports on her research to an oversight committee.