An animal rights watchdog group on Tuesday called for the University of Nebraska-Lincoln to permanently ban a team of researchers from experimenting on mice after the university self-reported a breach of research protocols in 2016.
Stop Animal Exploitation Now, an Ohio-based animal rights group advocating for an end to animal research, obtained the June 2, 2016, report to the National Institute of Health’s Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare from a Freedom of Information Act request.
Michael Budkie, the organization’s co-founder, said in a letter to UNL Chancellor Ronnie Green that the researchers conducting animal trials for an HIV vaccine through a $458,000 grant from NIH “flouted federal regulations as well as the authority of UNL research administration.”
The complaint against UNL stems from a university-generated report to NIH triggered by a March 2016 dispute between researchers and a veterinarian over the timely euthanasia of mice used in a study.
University researchers asked the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee responsible for overseeing the use of animals in research and teaching at the university to investigate whether or not research practice was in line with protocols.
The committee found unauthorized individuals were participating in animal-related activities and research was being done in an unapproved lab. The investigation also cited a failure by researchers to follow animal well-being and post-procedure guidelines, as well as a failure to euthanize animals in a timely manner.
In response, the committee ordered research to cease in April 2016 while further review was being done. The stop order was lifted briefly after the committee determined progress was being made on reorganizing research protocols, but reissued in May 2016 “when lab members were observed to be removing experimentally manipulated animals from the facility to an unauthorized laboratory.”
Budkie, who said since 1986 he has read “hundreds if not thousands” of reports similar to the one issued by UNL, said that part of the report stood out.
“This was the first time I remember hearing about laboratory staff absconding with the animals,” he said. “When research protocols are suspended twice, which in and of itself is extremely unusual, why is this project still funded and why are they allowed to continue working with animals?”
Responding to Budkie’s complaint on Tuesday, UNL said the animal rights group’s characterization of the report tells only a part of the story.
A June 8, 2016, letter from the NIH -- six days after UNL self-reported being out of compliance of research protocols -- signed off on the “corrective and preventative measures” the research team put into place to avoid falling out of compliance in the future.
“We appreciate being informed of this matter and find no cause for further action by this office,” Brent Morse, an animal welfare program specialist at NIH, wrote to UNL’s then-associate vice chancellor for research, Steve Goddard.
A university spokesman said those corrective and preventative measures remain in place.
“In short, the university’s systems and processes worked, and they continue to reflect our commitment to the highest principles in the conduct of research,” spokesman Steve Smith wrote in an email.
Budkie said NIH has no regulatory mechanism to punish researchers who fail to follow federal protocols dealing with animal experimentation, leading him to file a complaint with UNL’s leadership in an attempt to shut down the project.
“This kind of noncompliance should not ever be allowed to happen,” he said. “The people involved in practices so scientifically shoddy and directly in conflict with federal practices should not be allowed back in the lab.”
UNL said it plans to respond to Budkie’s complaint in due time.
Also on Tuesday, Budkie filed similar complaints against the University of Nebraska Medical Center and Creighton University, alleging violations of the Animal Welfare Act administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Creighton reported two incidents in May and June 2016 where researchers failed to document an examination of a microswine following an operation, and where two microswine were injured after being housed together overnight.
The report also included a plan for researchers to correct the problem.
Cindy Workman, a spokeswoman for Creighton, said NIH responded to the report by indicating the private university had taken all necessary and appropriate steps to correct its error.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture conducted an annual inspection of Creighton’s animal research facilities in May and recertified the lab without writing any citations, Workman added.
UNMC self-reported a compliance issue after researchers surgically implanted an ocular device in four non-human primates after being approved to perform the operation on one to two animals in a pilot program.
The study aimed to implant the device in as many as 12 non-human primates.
A review of the incident noted that animal welfare was not jeopardized and that the university's response corrected the breach of compliance. The oversight committee accepted the recommendations.