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Animal rights group calls for investigations into WSU research practices

UPDATED: Fri., July 9, 2021

Bryan Clock Tower glows at dawn on WSU's Campus in Pullman.    (Tyler Tjomsland/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
Bryan Clock Tower glows at dawn on WSU's Campus in Pullman.   (Tyler Tjomsland/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

SAEN, an Ohio-based animal rights watchdog, is calling for investigations into Washington State University’s animal research practices, citing reports of welfare issues and fabricated data in a scientific article.

The group submitted separate complaints within the past week to the federal Office of Research Integrity and AAALAC International, an accreditation organization that evaluates how entities use animals in research, teaching or testing. SAEN’s executive director, Michael Budkie, also sent a letter to WSU President Kirk Schulz calling for an investigation from his office.

“Washington State University staff is clearly utterly unqualified for their positions,” Budkie said.

SAEN has taken issue with WSU’s animal research practices in the past. In 2016, the group called on the U.S. Department of Agriculture to fine the university, citing the deaths of at least 15 grizzly bears over a six-year period and the overdosing of three bighorn sheep.

The group has similarly taken action against other research universities with complaints.

The animal welfare cases identified by SAEN were all self-reported by WSU to the National Institutes of Health, said WSU spokesman Phil Weiler.

“We’ve got a very good program here at WSU. We take our program very seriously,” said Alan Ekstrand, assistant director of the university’s animal welfare program. “If we do find incidents where things are not to the high level that we hold, we do put in place corrective actions, work on retraining, suspension if needed. You can see by the letters provided that we also report these incidences to our federal agencies.”

Fabricated research data

The group’s June 29 complaint to the Office of Research Integrity concerns a scientific article published in the Journal of Virology in September 2018 related to equine hepacivirus infections. The article was retracted in December 2020 after it was found that an author on the article, who was not the lead author, manipulated data used with the study.

The researcher is no longer employed by WSU, according to the article’s retraction notice. WSU representatives declined to verify whether there was any disciplinary action involved.

The study was conducted via a federal National Institutes of Health grant. Budkie is calling for the Office of Research Integrity to investigate, saying he believes the incident clearly meets the office’s definition of research misconduct.

WSU Vice President for Research Christopher Keane said the university has investigatory procedures when it comes to vetting research misconduct. That said, Weiler believes the university already resolved the matter.

“It is definitely in our best interest to, if we learn of things that are improper, that we take the right steps,” Weiler said. “We certainly don’t want to have bad information available out in the research world and we certainly don’t want to be misusing public resources in the way of grant funding. It jeopardizes our ability to secure grants in the future. It’s the right thing to do ethically, but also practically speaking.”

Animal welfare complaints

SAEN’s complaint to AAALAC are based partly on several reports the group obtained from the university via a public records request. The reports document animal welfare issues that emerged during research procedures dating to 2019.

The group is similarly calling for AAALAC to revoke WSU’s accreditation based on the university’s “long history of animal welfare abuses,” according to the complaint.

All of WSU’s animal facilities have voluntary accreditation through AAALAC, Ekstrand said.

“It adds another layer of assurance to the public that we’re bringing outside experts in to take a look at our program to assure that our program is meeting that gold standard,” he said.

One of the instances referenced in SAEN’s complaint took place earlier this year, as detailed in a letter from Keane to Axel Wolff, deputy director of the National Institutes of Health’s Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare.

The correspondence describes the procedures that were involved with surgically placing jugular vein catheters on 11 rats for training purposes.

The surgery was not described in protocol approved by WSU’s Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC), which oversees and reviews all WSU research and teaching activities involving live vertebrate animals, according to Keane’s report. Ekstrand said the surgery occurred sometime around February or March.

Keane’s letter cited the following issues with the procedure that were found during a review of surgical records in March:

• The approved post-operative analgesic, or painkiller, regimen was not followed. Protocol calls for buprenorphine and carprofen given for one to two days after the operation. Buprenorphine and ketoprofen were administered only once. Carprofen is similar to Ketoprofen; it’s a newer generation nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medication, said Nina Woodford, director of the Office of the Campus Veterinarian. Ketoprofen is not approved by IACUC protocol for that particular procedure.

• The buprenorphine and ketoprofen that were administered were expired.

• Seven of the 11 jugular vein catheters failed, requiring additional unapproved surgery to replace them.

• Surgical forms were filled out for the initial surgeries, but not the ones that followed. The forms did not reference the jugular vein catheter surgeries that were performed.

WSU’s IACUC voted March 31 to suspend all animal activities related to the research. The suspension was lifted May 11 after steps including retraining for the principal investigator and all staff, amendments to the involved protocols and a plan in place for oversight of project activities by the Office of the Campus Veterinarian for the next year.

In his complaint to AAALAC, Budkie wrote he felt the suspension was “grossly insufficient.”

“The suspension should have been a termination,” he wrote. “Failure to follow protocol, failure to provide adequate pain relief, and failure to document surgeries are sufficient grounds to cause anyone to be banned from performing future surgeries.”

The university has taken more severe steps in other cases, Keane said. Both he and Ekstrand said WSU administrators look at each incident individually to determine appropriate steps.

“When you look at these cases, you’re looking for histories of any ongoing noncompliance, what was maybe contributing causes. Do you think that retraining is going to be effective?” he said. “In this case, that’s clearly what we needed to do.”

The AAALAC complaint references seven additional reports, dating to 2019, that Keane sent Wolff concerning animal welfare issues.

Ekstrand said in each instance, including the one from earlier this year, the National Institutes of Health signed off on how the university handled the situations.

Other instances referenced by Budkie include (dates of the reports are in bold):

Dec. 3, 2019: Injections of 50% glycerol into 19 mice were 50% higher than the dosages described in protocol, though they were within WSU IACUC guidelines. A second saline injection in the opposite leg also was not described in the protocol. Four mice were found dead two days later, according to the report. Another four, moribund, were euthanized.

The storage condition and preparation of the glycerol and saline were then discussed as a potential cause. Woodford said a cause of death was never determined. The next injections occurred without incident after lab staff worked with the Office of the Campus Veterinarian and the IACUC approved an amendment to clarify injection volumes and saline control.

Aug. 7, 2019: Seven mice pups, less than 7 days old, were found alive in a bag in a carcass freezer. They were immediately euthanized. The research technician responsible was provided retraining on methods of euthanasia.

In the same report, Keane details how a diseased frog that was euthanized “had some recovery of movement” during an autopsy. The laboratory staff involved was retrained in amphibian euthanasia.

June 10, 2019: Three mice subjected to craniotomy surgery that April looked lethargic the following day, as observed by a graduate student. The student placed the mice’s cage on a heating pad. The mice were found dead a few days later; a cause of death could not be determined since the animals had been deceased for some time. It was later found the mice did not receive protocol-approved post-operative painkillers, while a required post-operative check was not done the day before the mice were found dead.

Ekstrand said there is “always the potential for some adverse events” and noncompliance issues.

Whether it’s through the university’s constant review and modification of training programs or rigorous staff orientation, Ekstrand said WSU works proactively to minimize the chance of these events from taking place as opposed to solely addressing them after the fact.

”I don’t want to say that we accept them because we don’t,” he said. “As you can see, we take immediate action,” he said, “but they are the type of situations that can come up at any research institution, so that’s why we have processes in place to continue to evaluate the program, to identify them and to correct them.”

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