Animal research probed

Treatment of animals used in federally funded research projects at Northwestern might be in violation of the Animal Welfare Act.

The USDA Animal Plant and Health Inspection Service has teamed with the National Institutes of Health to investigate allegations against the university that include mistreatment of monkeys and pigs, insufficient staff training and faulty record-keeping.

“Our goal is to determine whether a violation occurred and determine how that violation can be corrected,” said Hallie Pickhardt, a U.S.Department of Agriculture spokeswoman, adding that no definite date has been set for the investigation’s completion.

The USDA’s investigation began in part because the university failed to file an annual form that permits and regulates the use of animals in research, said Alan Cubbage, NU’s vice president for university relations.

“Research has grown significantly at Northwestern, but at the same time, research support has not grown as rapidly,” Cubbage said. “We have a lot more work, but not as much administrative support.”

The current investigation follows a $5.5 million settlement NU paid to the U.S. government in February. The government claimed NU researchers misrepresented the amount of time spent on federally funded projects. Although the university agreed to the settlement, it did not admit to any wrongdoing.

To better adhere to federal guidelines, administrators in March assembled a research advisory committee, hired an outside consulting agency and allocated $1.8 million to create computer software to aid researchers.

But the report released by the USDA suggests there might be more work to be done. The report states that insufficient training of a staff person resulted in a monkey’s death shortly after more than nine hours of surgery. The surgery the monkey underwent usually can be completed in half the time, the report noted.

In addition the report indicated that investigators found an automatic watering system in a monkey cage that wasn’t functioning properly. The report said some monkeys went without water for two days, resulting in dehydration.

Incomplete recording of data about research pigs was also noted by the officials. Of 10 pigs that were euthanized prior to a magnetic resonance imaging scan in May 2002, three did not have anesthesia records.

“It appears that the individual filling out the medical records does not understand what is required and has intentionally made entries that do not reflect the death of the (pigs) that have occurred prior to or during the MRI procedure,” the report states.

The report’s authors also claim that a former director of administration in NU’s Office for the Protection of Research Subjects “went outside of her responsibilities and autonomy to ‘administratively approve’ a proposed activity that requires the review of (NU’s Animal Care and Use Committee).”

Vice President for Research C. Bradley Moore, who took over May 1, could not be reached for comment Monday.

According to the USDA report, researchers on both the Chicago and Evanston campuses use 12 dogs, 12 cats, three guinea pigs, 207 hamsters, 68 rabbits and 55 primates.

Animals on the Evanston Campus now are housed in Hogan and Cooke halls. But the Pancoe-Evanston Northwestern Healthcare Life Sciences Pavilion, scheduled to open this spring, will house the Center for Experimental Animal Research. The new center will provide researchers with “modern, flexible and fully accredited animal facilities for research,” according to its Web site.

Most of the surgical research on larger animals is conducted at the Feinberg School of Medicine. Biochemistry Prof. Carole LaBonne, who works with frogs in her lab at Hogan, said researchers who experiment with animals such as monkeys must follow stringent regulations.

“The guidelines are strict, but they reinforce what we want to do,” LaBonne said. “No one sets out to cause pain or discomfort to any animal. But we all do want to push science forward.”

The Daily’s Mindy Hagen and Jerome C. Pandell contributed to this report.