By Carol M. Ostrom
Seattle Times health reporter
The University of Washington may have to pay back some
federal research grant money because of ongoing oversight problems at
its controversial primate-research center, UW and federal officials have
The problems stem from unapproved surgical procedures
done on monkeys during research funded by the National Eye Institute, a
federal agency, said Nona Phillips, director of the UW's Office of
Documents obtained under public-disclosure laws cite
dozens of such surgeries in the labs of neurosciences researchers
studying the relationship between the brain and eye movement.
The UW says the problems amount to a paperwork glitch
that inadvertently omitted mention of particular surgeries during
revisions of research protocols, which must be approved by a UW
committee before research can proceed.
The UW says it has taken steps to improve oversight,
and the federal agency responsible for ensuring the "humane care and
use" of animals in research, the Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare (OLAW),
has said it is satisfied by those steps and has closed the case.
But the possibility that grant money may have to be
refunded "is still under consideration and investigation," said Dr.
Michael Oberdorfer, a program director at the National Eye Institute,
part of the federal National Institutes of Health.
And activists who have long targeted the UW's primate
center as cruel and inhumane say it proves the UW is not taking
seriously orders to clean up its practices at the Washington National
Primate Research Center on the UW campus.
"The fact that the UW characterizes this incident — 41
surgeries on 14 monkeys — as a clerical error seems unduly dismissive to
me," said Debra Durham, the Seattle-based primate specialist for People
for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).
"Ethically speaking, we can't afford to lose sight of
the animals. For them, the difference between two surgeries and six or
10 is much more than paperwork."
The recent troubles are the latest in a long string of
problems for the UW's animal-research facilities.
In 1995, the university risked losing U.S. Department
of Agriculture accreditation for its primate-breeding facility near
Spokane when five baboons died of cold-weather exposure or thirst. The
school paid a fine and closed the aging facility.
In late 2006, the UW was put on probation by the
facilities accrediting agency, the Association for Assessment and
Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care (AAALAC). Although inspectors
praised the UW for its veterinary care and medical record-keeping, they
noted "serious deficiencies" in animal-research facilities in Seattle,
including monkey labs that leaked steam from a cage-washing device,
inadequate lighting, and lack of alarms to alert people in case of
heating or air-conditioning failure.
The UW's Phillips said the university has corrected
all the deficiencies, except those that require remodeling of the
facility, and that's being planned. But the UW is still on probation
The most recent problems were brought to the attention
of federal agencies in late 2006 by a Cincinnati animal activist,
Michael Budkie, who heads a group called Stop Animal Exploitation Now!,
or SAEN. Budkie complained that certain monkeys used in neurosciences
studies were being mistreated.
After a three-day visit in late October 2006, a USDA
inspector dismissed most of Budkie's allegations but noted that "many
discrepancies were uncovered" in animal research done by Albert Fuchs, a
neurosciences researcher studying how the brain controls eye movement.
The inspector said some monkeys had received many more
surgeries than were allowed in the protocols approved by the UW's
animal-welfare oversight committee, the Institutional Animal Care and
Use Committee, as well as surgeries that were "outside the realm" of the
Primate A01136, a rhesus macaque, for example, died
after eight surgeries, including one that removed a section of its
cranial bone and installed a recording cylinder on its brain with
acrylic and screws. The approved protocol called for only two minor
surgeries, with possible need for readjustment or repair.
Two other primates also had undergone more surgeries
than called for in the protocols, the inspector said.
In addition, the approved protocols didn't specify the
way that researchers were supposed to drill through the monkey's
eye-socket bone to run wires from an implant to a screw in the skull.
The inspector also criticized Fuchs for saying his
animals had experienced no unexpected adverse events or deaths in the
past year, even though the macaque called A01136 had died, apparently of
hypothermia after surgery.
The federal OLAW office closed the UW's case in March
2007 but reopened it in May after PETA complained about more
unauthorized surgeries and unacceptable sterilization of the implants
The federal animal-welfare office told the UW to
review five years' worth of neuroscience primate protocols and animal
records. Phillips said that hadn't been done before because it was
assumed the USDA inspector had identified all nonapproved procedures in
That review found two additional researchers' labs had
performed unauthorized surgeries — a total of 39 unapproved surgeries on
16 monkeys over four years.
Altogether, the grants for the three neurosciences
researchers for the periods covered by the unapproved surgeries total
several million dollars, though no one can agree on the exact figure.
The researchers say they're trying to learn how the
brain controls movement, in an effort to improve treatment of stroke and
other brain disorders.
Phillips said there is no indication the UW could lose
entire grants. But she said it might have to refund what was spent on
the unauthorized surgeries and care afterward, which the UW has
calculated at more than $189,000.
Phillips said the unauthorized surgeries occurred
because an update of research protocols mistakenly removed wording
noting that if hardware placed in animals' heads broke or needed to be
readjusted, later surgeries would be required.
As for the sterilization of implants, the UW said it
has changed to a different sterilizing solution, even though it denies a
problem with the old formula.
Phillips stresses that federal inspectors found no
"animal mistreatment or animal suffering," and she expressed frustration
that critics claim otherwise.
"The university has a clean slate on that," Phillips
In a letter to the UW on March 3, an OLAW director
wrote that the agency was satisfied the UW "has implemented measures to
correct and prevent recurrence of the original problem," and would
inform PETA that the allegations it raised have been "appropriately
University of Washington, Seattle, WA