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UW To Move Primates Researcher Cleared Of Allegations, But Relocation To New Center Will Cost Jobs

The University of Washington will close its Medical Lake primate research center within three years, moving more than 1,000 animals used in AIDS and other research to Louisiana and a new center near Seattle.

The university, which investigated charges that a Medical Lake researcher misstated research results, also said Thursday the scientist, Che-Chung Tsai, did nothing wrong.

Tsai, chief pathologist at Medical Lake, was accused by two former employees of misrepresenting data in tests of an experimental anti-AIDS drug given to monkeys.

Tsai said the accusers, former records manager Linda Harrison and former lab technician Terry Thompson, were wrong and were acting from a personal vendetta against him.

Tsai has been one of the university’s key AIDS researchers for the past three years.

A science journal article this month gained worldwide notice by reporting that Tsai found a new drug more effective in halting the onset of the primate version of AIDS than any other anti-viral drug.

After reviewing Tsai’s earlier work, a UW committee said it found “minor issues of concern” over his methods and analysis. All other allegations against Tsai “are without merit,” the misconduct committee concluded.

Tsai’s work and other AIDS projects at Medical Lake will continue even though most animals there will move next summer to Tulane University near New Orleans.

“Ironically, while we’re closing down the Medical Lake site over the next few years, the number of AIDS projects there is growing,” said Bill Morton, the primate center’s acting director.

The first move next summer will send about 800 of Medical Lake’s monkeys to Louisiana. The remaining primates will be used for AIDS and other research projects.

Moving the first group of monkeys will mean cutting 35-40 of the 58 Medical Lake jobs, Morton said.

During the next three years, the university will build a new primate center at American Lake near Fort Lewis.

When the Medical Lake building finally closes, all lab facilities and the remaining research animals will move to the new center. Medical Lake workers at that point can transfer to similar jobs in Seattle, Morton said.

The chief reason for closing the Medical Lake facility was to operate the primate center more efficiently closer to Seattle, he said.

“It was very hard to put many of our research groups over here (in Spokane). Plus, it became increasingly more expensive to run it,” said Morton.

It costs about $3 million a year to run the field station, UW officials estimated.

The UW acquired the former mental hospital building, built in the 1940s, about 30 years ago.

Since then, the field station grew from a breeding warehouse for monkeys and baboons into a well-equipped laboratory that brought in about $3 million a year from the federal government.

The arrangement with Tulane will allow for the breeding of monkeys and baboons in Louisiana. They would be shipped to Seattle when needed for research.

In Louisiana, “the animals will live in spacious outdoor corrals in a warm southern climate, a much more natural setting than the indoor facility (at Medical Lake),” Morton said.

Another key concern for moving the animals has been the difficulty of managing the building from nearly 300 miles away, Morton acknowledged.

He said lack of oversight contributed to a series of animal care problems that led to a government investigation and complaint against the UW.

Earlier this year, U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors cited the Medical Lake facility for neglecting the animals. They also threatened to pull grants because of several monkey and baboon deaths that occurred there since 1993.

Without admitting wrongdoing, the university spent $20,000 to improve primate care at the Medical Lake building.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo