Research halted at UConn neuro lab

A scientist suspends his ocular motor system research after numerous USDA citations

By | February 6, 2007

David Waitzman, a neurologist and clinician at the University of Connecticut Health Center, voluntarily ceased research on rhesus macaques last October in response to nearly a dozen citations from the United States Department of Agriculture regarding procedures administered to the monkeys. The news was made public by the University of Connecticut last month. "This was blown way out of proportion in comparison to what we're doing," Waitzman, who has worked with primates for medical research for 25 years, told The Scientist. "I don't think the [monkeys] could be taken care of by any one better qualified than myself." The citations, which occurred between November 2005 and August of last year, focused on unapproved drug injections given to a monkey and inadequate research into alternatives to animal testing. Each citation for non-compliance with USDA regulations on animal care involved a procedure that had been previously approved by the UConn animal care committee and was in line with USDA regulations, said Waitzman. Waitzman's research concentrated on the ocular motor system , paticularly how the brain stem controls eye movement. In addition, he had been collaborating on a project with Shigeyuki Kuwada, also a neuroscience researcher at the UConn health center, testing auditory distance sensing in primates. Due to the citations, the researchers are not allowed to use any of their preliminary results. Waitzman's trouble with the USDA began in the fall of 2005 when one of his macaques died unexpectedly after an electrode was removed from his brain, leading to uncontrollable seizures. When UConn graduate student and animal rights activist Justin Goodman found out about the incident (after submitting a Freedom of Information Act request), he sent the agency a letter demanding the lab be investigated. Goodman and other activists have protested and pushed the administration for over a year to shut the lab down. The USDA has since visited UConn nearly a half dozen times on random inspections. In March, 2006, the USDA demanded that Waitzman update his protocol and prove that his methods were within regulations. Waitzman responded with a 15-page treatise, which was accepted by the USDA. However, on another follow-up visit, the USDA found Waitzman performing a drug injection into the brain of one of his primates that was not listed in the new protocol, even though it was in line with USDA and UConn regulations. Waitzman claimed that he was too distracted by other issues to submit the injection procedure for approval. "I was basically caught with my pants down, there was nothing I could do," he said. On the urging of the school's administration, Waitzman chose to abandon his research, euthanize his second monkey, and send the remaining monkey to be housed at the University of Mississippi. Waitzman's colleague Kuwada said he feels Waitzman is being singled out by the USDA and inadequately supported by the university. "You could blame him for sloppiness" for not updating his protocols, Kuwada, told The Scientist. But Waitzman likely wasn't mistreating the animals, Kuwada added, because the animals wouldn't have cooperated during his experiments. Kuwada said he worries that the incident is getting blown out of proportion, and any citation issued by the USDA seems to get picked up by animal rights activists as evidence that animal research should be stopped altogether. Blas Torres, a colleague of Waitzman's at the University of Seville, told The Scientist in an Email that Waitzman is a "serious and responsible researcher," and "one of the most important international references" in his field. "So I am really astonished and concerned with this matter." John Miller, executive director of the Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Lab Animal Care, said that a certain amount of noncompliance is inevitable. "USDA citations are relatively common," he told The Scientist. "In a large institution assuming that everything is going perfectly is unrealistic." Miller added that how universities choose to deal with such violations can vary and depend on many factors, such as political pressure or funding issues. According to Waitzman, his decision to suspend his research came at the end of a long process, and was a result of not just the citations, but also funding problems, and pressure from the University. UConn declined to comment on Waitzman's decision to shut down his lab. While the regulations set up by the USDA and supported by university animal care committees do create a system of checks and balances, many universities and lab animal research groups, such as Wake Forest University and the Dana Farber Cancer Center, are establishing a more stringent post- approval monitoring system, whereby active projects will be closely observed and maintained for protocol updates by special agents of the university. The UConn Health Center's animal care committee recently conducted a meeting to discuss if such a program would be feasible. Peter Autenreid, the attending veterinarian at the Center for Laboratory Animal Care at the UConn Health Center who was intimately involved in Waitzman's research, told The Scientist that if he had known Waitzman was operating outside of his protocol, he could have helped to get the necessary approvals. "We didn't know he was going to do these kinds of procedures, even though every single one was in previously approved protocol. A couple of stupid administrative mistakes did him in." According to last reports, the USDA is not filing official violations against UConn. The USDA declined to comment on the situation. Waitzman is currently writing two grant proposals, including one involving near-space auditory sensing. His lab and the monkey house at UConn have not been closed, although the administration has issued a statement of their alignment with animal welfare protocol. According to Jane Shaskan, a communications officer at UConn Health Center, no research on primates is currently going on in their facilities. Andrea Gawrylewski Links within this article: David Waitzman UConn Animal Care Committee JA Cromer and DM Waitzman. "Neurones associated with saccade metrics in the monkey central mesencephalic reticular formation," Journ. Physiol. Feb 1, 2006. D. Steinberg, "Cutting neurons down to size," The Scientist, November 3, 2003. Blas Torres K. Grens. "Dog sacrificed for sales demonstration" The Scientist, January 18, 2007

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