The University of Arizona has been asked to investigate failures involving its animal research programs, which led to to the deaths of two sheep and caused it to temporarily halt surgical procedures on mice.
In a letter to University President Robert Robbins, the animal-rights organization Stop Animal Exploitation Now called for the University to launch an investigation into five incidents involving animal research in 2020 that resulted in a response from the federal government.
Michael Budkie, co-founder of Stop Animal Exploitation Now, urged that staff involved in the incidents be banned from future work with animals and that UA officials terminate the projects during which the incidents occurred.
In 2020, the University of Arizona self reported four incidents that had a negative affect on the health and well-being of animals involved in research to the Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare, part of the National Institutes of Health.
In one incident on Nov. 1, 2020, the sheep area of the Campus Agricultural Center was broken into and vandalized. Two sheep were injured and veterinarians at the center determined they needed to be euthanized.
UA said it fixed the problem by implementing additional security measures at the site, according to its response to the federal government.
Stop Animal Exploitation Now also filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Agriculture accusing the UA of violating the Animal Welfare Act because sheep are a regulated species under the act. (Mice are not.)
In a second incident, during a semi-annual inspection of animal facilities on Nov. 2, the university discovered that a primary researcher was performing surgeries on mice without properly sterilizing tools, and was not keeping surgical records.
The university halted all surgical activities until proper training was provided. The university said in documents that the researcher expressed regret and was retrained before resuming surgeries in January 2021.
This was the second incident in a month. A lab worker was found on Oct. 12 performing survival surgery without proper aseptic surgical techniques.
It is not clear whether it was the same person involved in the November incident, because the University of Arizona didn’t answer that question when asked by the Arizona Republic. The UA didn’t comment on the complaint despite being given two and half days to respond.
In late May, there was a self-reported incident involving rats in the University of Arizona Health Sciences’ necropsy room.
Two of the rats were paralyzed and unable to reach food or water, and a third had paresis and had trouble moving. According to the report, veterinary staff told the primary researcher from the lab to euthanize the rats, but the researcher didn’t do so and left the rats in the necropsy area after-hours.
Upon discovering the rats, veterinary staff euthanized them. The researcher expressed regret and said it was a miscommunication. The staff member was trained and shown the correct procedures for requesting euthanasia, according to documents.
In addition to the incidents that were self reported to the Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare, an investigation by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Research Integrity found that former UA Professor Charles A. Downs engaged in research misconduct by falsifying and/or fabricating data in six different grant applications.
The Office of Research Agreement found that Downs “knowingly, intentionally, or recklessly falsified and/or fabricated” images and bar graphs involving data of rat lung tissue. It found he reused and relabeled previously published figures in 12 instances in the six grant applications involving federal funds.
He had a dual appointment as an assistant professor in the College of Nursing and the Division of Translational and Regenerative Medicine in the College of Medicine.
He left to go to the University of Miami in 2018, but later resigned his position as an associate dean after he entered into a settlement agreement with the Office of Research Integrity in late 2020. In the agreement with the Office of Research Integrity, he neither admitted nor denied the findings of research misconduct.
Downs, who is an assistant professor at Miami, did not respond to request for comment.
The University of Miami provided a statement saying: “Charles Downs is an associate professor at the University of Miami School of Nursing and Health Studies. The University of Miami is aware of the findings by the Office of Research Integrity involving Dr. Downs that occurred when he was employed by a prior institution. When the University of Miami became aware of the ORI investigation, we conducted a comprehensive evaluation of his work since he joined the University of Miami in August 2018, and no evidence of research misconduct has been identified.”
Budkie said findings of research misconduct are extremely rare; there were only 10 instances in 2020 in the U.S. He said that puts the UA in “extremely bad company.”
He estimated there have only been 60 instances nationwide similar to the UA shutting down surgical procedures on mice.
“Suspending protocols like that or halting procedures is not something that the research administration of laboratories does lightly,” Budkie said.
He said a second-year veterinary technician would know that surgeries need to be sterile and aseptic. He called it “an extremely basic thing.”
Budkie said UA has systemwide problems and called for the university to launch an investigation to determine what is going on.
“The University of Arizona has a very serious systemwide problem, because it’s not solely that there was a finding of research misconduct,” Budkie said. “It’s not solely that there was a case where animals died in violation of the animal welfare act. It’s not solely that there were problems with how surgical procedures were being performed. It’s all of those things.”
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