July 31, 2014

UW animal research oversight committees strive for consensus

Very young monkeys who are separated from their mothers are fed by animal caretakers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “They hold the animals, they give them comfort, they give them warmth,” says Saverio Capuano, head veterinarian at the Wisconsin National Primate Center.

Wisconsin National Primate Research Center

Very young monkeys who are separated from their mothers are fed by animal caretakers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “They hold the animals, they give them comfort, they give them warmth,” says Saverio Capuano, head veterinarian at the Wisconsin National Primate Center.

Craig Berridge, a behavioral neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is comfortable with the scrutiny given animal research on campus.

“Animal research is a heavily regulated and overseen process,” says Berridge, who studies the brain mechanisms of rats. “And I think everyone who does animal research feels they’re balancing the need for and desire to alleviate human suffering and to minimize animal suffering.”

Berridge is the chairman of the College of Letters and Science committee that oversees animal research. There are five such bodies, known as Institutional Animal Care and Use Committees, or IACUCs. Experiments are also vetted by funding agencies such as the National Institutes of Health.

As part of the study on the effect of early adversity on the brain by psychiatrist Dr. Ned Kalin, infant monkeys who are peer-housed within the nursery at the University of Wisconsin-Madison are moved regularly to this “play cage” equipped with swings and puzzles.

Wisconsin National Primate Center

As part of the study on the effect of early adversity on the brain by psychiatrist Dr. Ned Kalin, infant monkeys who are peer-housed within the nursery at the University of Wisconsin-Madison are moved regularly to this “play cage” equipped with swings and puzzles.

These committees were mandated by a 1985 amendment to the federal Animal Welfare Act in the wake of revelations about the scandalously grisly laboratory conditions of a colony of rhesus monkeys in Silver Spring, Maryland.

“It’s a committee with a very explicitly identified purpose,” Berridge says. “It’s a committee that satisfies federal rules, federal laws, and those laws prescribe what we’re supposed to do.”

But others are skeptical that the animal researchers who dominate the IACUCs are capable of rigorously evaluating the ethics of the work on which their livelihoods and careers are built.

“These are technocrats,” says Rick Marolt, a local critic of animal experimentation. “They live in a culture of animal experimentation.”

The committees are primarily composed of animal researchers, although they are required to include at least one public member. They have the ability to reject studies or require changes. Usually, committees approve experimental protocols unanimously after requesting revisions.

Since 2004, around 12,000 protocol submissions have been made to the UW’s five campus IACUCs, a somewhat duplicative number since many were submitted multiple times, says Eric Sandgren, director of the Research Animal Resources Center. Eighteen of those protocols drew dissenting votes, nine were denied outright, and an unknown number of protocols were simply withdrawn, he says.

Sandgren notes that the committees almost always ask for protocol revisions. “I do not believe it is a criticism of our system that IACUCs are willing to work with investigators until a protocol finally receives approval.”

Saverio Capuano, head veterinarian and researcher for the Wisconsin National Primate Research Center, is responsible for vetting protocols before they are reviewed by the graduate school IACUC. He sees his role as limited.

“(Researchers) come with their grants, they come with their ideas,” says Capuano, himself a primate researcher. “I don’t tell them what to do. I just make sure the animals are treated … fairly and humanely.”

But Rob Streiffer, who chaired the Letters and Science committee before Berridge, says that if a researcher provides a compelling enough rationale for their research, then the committees may approve it, no matter how cruel.

“Imagine you’re running an experiment on wound infection, where you have to withhold veterinary treatment precisely in order to witness the phenomenon,” Streiffer says. “The IACUCs are authorized to make those kinds of exceptions.”

He adds that he believes there is too little “explicit discussion” on ethics in the oversight process.

“I think the de facto rule is that if the vets have already signed off on how the animals will be treated, and if it’s good science, and it’s something that fits into this larger picture about something important, then it’s going to be okay.”

  • “Craig Berridge, a behavioral neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is comfortable with the scrutiny given animal research on campus.” I suspect that Berridge’s “comfort” with the use of animals on his campus may have something to do with the money he gets from it.

    5R01 MH081843 05: LOW-DOSE METHYLPHENIDATE AND THE PREFRONTAL CORTEX. BERRIDGE, CRAIG W. UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN-MADISON. 2013 $430,094.

    R21 MH102211 01 CRF & FRONTOSTRIATAL NEURAL CODING. BERRIDGE, CRAIG W UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN-MADISON. 2013. $225,750.

    He uses rats in dead-end cruel experiments. His work is just another example of the completely worthless white coat welfare underway at the university and around the country. He also speaks about things he must know nothing about. Harlow’s work contributed nothing to child care. For readers with an interest reading a well-researched work on the history of child care, I recommend Thomas Maier’s biography of Benjamin Spock, “Dr. Spock: An American Life.”

    Berridge would do well to look a little more carefully at the oversight system as well. He seems less than well informed about that subject too. See:
    http://www.socialpsychology.org/articles/scipress.htm

  • Sara Andrews

    I’d be very interested in what we are using as definitions for “fairly and humanely”. Under what possible definitions does this new monkey research fit any of those definitions of those words?

    How do you minimize suffering when your research is designed to study the effect of suffering (aka, immediate removal from parental care and protection and subjection to anxiety causing events)?

    What is fair or humane (having or showing compassion or benevolence) about subjecting a baby animal to suffering for it’s whole life and then ending it’s life very prematurely to analyze it’s brain’s response to stress? In what way is this possibly fair to the research animals in question?

    I have an advanced degree from the UW (though admittedly not in a related topic) – but I took several psychology classes through the UW system and two philosophy classes as well. I am yet completely unable to understand why any of this is considered necessary or moral.

    Though I find the ethics questionable on other types of animal research, this study is not about addressing a communicable disease or developing a vaccines. This is about applying things we learn from the brains of animals very similar to us to mental health treatment – mental health issues that are caused by environmental conditions that we should be addressing as a society with education and services, not drugs.

    How in the world can we think that we could gain a benefit from drugs that would work on both of our brains in a similar way without acknowledging that the lives and emotions of these animals is similar to ours and therefore holds a high value? If we wouldn’t do this research on ourselves (and we never would), how is it okay to do it another species with very similar brains to ours?

    The benefits of this research are totally unknown, and you can’t preemptively justify the means to an end that is highly questionable.

    I find this research nauseating – and I am ashamed to have my degrees from a system that condones this type of research activity and deems it ethically acceptable in 2014.

  • Susan Peterson

    Are we not a civilized nation??? To do this type of “experiment” is very disturbing. It is quite obvious the type of outcome when removing a primate, human from their mother. I also wonder about the money aspect from this study. What appalled me most is that our tax money is paying for this. Shame on UW-Madison!!!