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Illegal Experiments: Physicians File Lawsuit Against UCSF for Violating Animal Welfare Act

Should taxpayers have to fund illegal animal experiments? Many university-affiliated research centers across the country violate the Animal Welfare Act time and again—then use state funds to pay the fines and simply continue their experiments. Six California doctors are taking a stand against these activities by filing suit against the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF).

The lawsuit was filed July 31 in Superior Court of the state of California with legal counsel from PCRM. The majority of experiments detailed in the legal complaint involve disturbingly invasive neurological studies on macaque monkeys. Lead plaintiff Pia Salk, Psy.D., is the niece of Jonas Salk, creator of the first polio vaccine. Joining Dr. Salk in bringing the suit are Larry Hansen, M.D., professor of neurosciences and pathology at University of California, San Diego, and four other area physicians.

Over the past decade, government inspectors have repeatedly documented serious violations of the Animal Welfare Act at UCSF. In 2005, the university was fined $92,500—reportedly the fourth-largest settlement amount ever paid for violations of this nature. Under California law, taxpayers are entitled to sue if state resources are funding illegal activities and being used to pay the resulting fines. The lawsuit asks the Superior Court to cut off the funding for these experiments until UCSF comes into compliance with the law.

In one experiment, UCSF researchers drilled holes in the skulls of macaque monkeys, bolted metal restraining devices into their heads, and attached data recording devices to track their eye movements and brain function while the monkeys “worked” to receive rewards such as water. This experiment caused great pain and stress to the animals. Moreover, according to Dr. Hansen, a neurologist who specializes in Alzheimer’s disease, it won’t yield results that are applicable to humans. “The experimenter invokes the potential for alleviating Alzheimer’s disease, but the neural system he studies is not involved in Alzheimer’s disease,” Dr. Hansen said.

The Animal Welfare Act was meant to protect animals from not only cruel research but also research that is duplicative and unnecessary. Two of the experiments conducted by a researcher at UCSF and cited in the lawsuit proposed killing between 700 and 800 dogs to study the correlations of heart failure, structural changes in the heart, and atrial fibrillation. However, these correlations have already been demonstrated both in animals and in humans, and the species differences indicate that studying dogs’ hearts contributes little to knowledge of human heart failure and atrial fibrillation.

The other plaintiffs in the lawsuit are Nancy Harrison, M.D., a private practice pathologist who completed her residency at the University of California, San Diego; Richard Mc Lellan, M.D., a specialist in emergency medicine; Mark Niblack, M.D., a retired anesthesiologist; and Jacquelyn Wilson, M.D., D.A.B.F.M., a consultant physician in integrative medicine. As of press time, PCRM is awaiting UCSF’s answer to the complaint. The plaintiffs will then seek discovery, which allows the plaintiffs to question researchers and administrators at UCSF under oath and review their files.

A Larger Problem

Plaintiffs Pia Salk, Psy.D., and Larry Hansen, M.D., speak with reporters outside of San Francisco Superior Court

UCSF is not the first university-related research facility with legal violations. Federal law requires research facilities to create Institutional Animal Care and Use Committees (IACUCs) to oversee that facility’s compliance with the Animal Welfare Act. The USDA enforces federal regulations through the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, which periodically inspects each facility. An audit report released in 2005 by the USDA’s Office of the Inspector General noted the repeated failures of IACUCs to detect, report, or correct serious problems in research programs. According to the report, some “IACUCs did not ensure that unnecessary or repetitive experiments would not be performed on laboratory animals” and facility inspections revealed that IACUCs do not effectively monitor the “search for alternative research, veterinary care, review of painful procedures, and the researchers’ use of animals.”

That report also found that many facilities view the heavily discounted fines for violating the Animal Welfare Act as a normal cost of business rather than a deterrent, especially when measured against the hundreds of millions of research dollars at stake. With an indifferent attitude toward fines by the researchers and the lax enforcement of the law by IACUCs, there is little incentive for research centers to discontinue harmful experiments.

Repeat Offenders

dog in cageResearch facilities all over the United States have been fined for violating the Animal Welfare Act in a variety of ways. In some cases, the fines have ended the experiments. A researcher at the University of Connecticut Health Center finally halted his experiments on monkeys after four USDA inspections found a failure to provide alternatives to potentially painful or distressful procedures, adequate water, adequate veterinary care, and adequate training for handlers. David Waitzman drilled holes into the skulls of rhesus monkeys and attached tiny steel coils directly onto their eyes in an effort to study the coordinated control of the eyes by the brain to direct the center of gaze. Two of the monkeys—Cornelius and Lips—died from the experiment. Waitzman ended his work on Aug. 31, 2006, and was reprimanded by the school.

Reports show that the Health Center’s IACUC made several recommendations to the center after investigating the USDA’s findings. The IACUC reported that researchers performed unauthorized procedures and employed unauthorized staff, and that discrepancies in drug dosing were the result of carelessness and typographical errors. The USDA has also taken action against the University of Connecticut’s main campus twice in the past nine years. In 2002, the school paid a fine of $129,500 for failure to provide adequate veterinary care.

However, other schools have been found in violation of federal law and received few, if any, penalties. A 2004 report by the National Institutes of Health gave specific examples of severe violations of the Animal Welfare Act at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Violations at the school included: animals dying from cage flooding, animals being denied anesthesia during painful procedures, unauthorized experiments on animals by students, animals being deprived of food and water, and amputation of animals’ toes for identification purposes. After the 2004 report, the university assured the National Institutes of Health that it implemented corrective measures to fully comply with regulations. However, a follow-up investigation and report by the agency in 2005 found many of the same violations, as well as additional ones that included sick and injured animals being denied veterinary care and left to die, more animals being used in experiments than the protocols permitted, suffering animals being denied postsurgical pain medication, and animals living in extremely overcrowded conditions, leading to cannibalism. Despite both of these reports, the school has not been penalized and continues to receive millions of dollars for animal research each year.

Moving Forward

PCRM’s lawsuit against UCSF and ongoing investigations at other schools and research institutions should bring to light some of the cruel and inhumane activities that take place under the guise of legal research. As technology advances, researchers around the world are questioning not only the ethical implications of animal research but also their scientific validity for predicting outcomes in human health. Universities and research facilities should not be wasting taxpayers’ dollars conducting animal experiments and paying fines for not properly adhering to the already low standards of the Animal Welfare Act. Instead, this time and money should be focused on nonduplicative, effective, and modern research methods. 

Animal Welfare Act Violations Across the Country

Many schools in the United States have been fined for violating the Animal Welfare Act. Here are a few examples:

University of Washington

The University of Washington was put on probation by the Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care in February 2007 for violations at its animal research centers, including the Washington Primate Research Center. Violations included unsanitary conditions that jeopardized the health of both workers and animals, and an incident in 2005 in which three rooms reached 104 degrees Fahrenheit, killing 500 mice.

University of Nevada

The USDA cited the University of Nevada, Reno, for 46 violations between May 2004 and March 2005. The violations, which resulted in an $11,400 fine, included leaving 10 pigs with inadequate water or housing, poor sanitation, lack of veterinary care, and failure to investigate complaints of animal neglect. The Reno Gazette-Journal also reported that 38 pregnant sheep died in 2002 when they were inside a locked area without food or water for three days.

Columbia University

Columbia University is the only school to ever have its research program suspended by the National Institutes of Health for not meeting animal welfare standards. The 1986 suspension forced Columbia to end all animal research on vertebrates other than rodents, affecting several million dollars worth of projects. Since that time, several Columbia research projects have sparked controversy, including an experiment in which an entire litter of puppies was killed by cardiac puncture. The school eventually paid just $2,000 in fines for several violations in 2004.

University of California, Davis

The University of California, Davis, paid a nearly $5,000 fine in 2005 for violations that resulted in the deaths of seven monkeys. The researchers left the monkeys in temperatures of up to 115 degrees Fahrenheit for hours at a time.




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