Ivies investigated for animal mistreatment
By Matthew Mc Nierney, The Dartmouth Staff
Published on Tuesday, September 27, 2011
Dartmouth was ranked the second best institution in the Ivy League for its treatment of animals in research programs, according to a Sept. 21 report from the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. The report ranked Ivy League institutions by their “Research Misconduct Scores,” a metric based on data from U.S. Department of Agriculture inspection reports since 2008, according to John Pippin, director of academic affairs for the committee and the study’s author.
The report found that only Columbia University had a lower Research Misconduct Score than Dartmouth, and that Columbia and Dartmouth are the only two schools in the Ivy League to have no repeat violations of USDA regulations on animal testing. The University of Pennsylvania was ranked lowest, with a Research Misconduct Score more than double that of Yale University and Princeton University, which both tied for second worst.
Although Dartmouth had fewer violations than many other Ivy League institutions, the study found that no Ivy League school had a “good track record” in respect to adherence to the Animal Welfare Act, one of the main pieces of legislation that governs the treatment of animals in research programs, Pippin said in an interview with The Dartmouth. According to the study, Dartmouth had 27 violations over the three-year period, three of which were considered “severe.”
Pippin said that when the relatively small size of Dartmouth’s research program is taken into account, Dartmouth’s record is far from “sterling.” Dartmouth houses approximately 2,000 animals per year for its research programs, but still has similar numbers of violations to Yale and Harvard, which house over 5,500 and 7,100 animals respectively, according to Pippin.
“Severe” violations from Dartmouth’s research program include a monkey that showed signs of starvation and a hamster that was believed to have been euthanized and was placed in a carcass cooler until researchers realized it was still alive, according to the report. The report also cites researchers’ failure to notice “behaviors that point to distress” in primates, “dirty” equipment and “poor recordkeeping.”
The nature of Dartmouth’s violations suggests that there may be a broader problem in the way the College conducts research, Pippin said.
“To have a monkey who is neglected to the point where his pelvic bones are showing, that’s not a mistake, that’s willful.” he said. “To us, that says the system itself isn’t working well at Dartmouth.”
Although the report found that the College’s veterinarian was unaware of the monkey’s weight loss, Jack Hoopes, director of Dartmouth’s Animal Care and Use Program, said researchers closely monitored the animal and eventually removed it from the study after asking the opinion of USDA veterinarians.
Hoopes called the incident involving the hamster a “distressing” mistake, and said that the error was made by an “experienced” technician who believed that the unconscious hamster had been successfully euthanized. Hoopes said other researchers “quickly” found the animal, properly euthanized it and self-reported the incident to the USDA.
Dartmouth researchers must go through numerous regulatory bodies to approve projects involving animals, according to Hoopes.The National Institutes of Health, which provides funding to conduct studies; the USDA, which provides unannounced inspections of research facilities; and the Dartmouth Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee, which is comprised of about 15 people “from all areas of Dartmouth,” are all consulted before Dartmouth researchers use animals in experiments, Hoopes said.
Pippin said the only long-term solution to animal mistreatment in research facilities is to move away from animal testing and instead use human-based testing. Alternatives to human-based testing include in vitro testing, as well as human tissue and special imaging studies, according to Pippin.
Although steps have been made towards more human-based testing, universities are reluctant to end animal testing because it can be more difficult to get funding from the NIH for human-based research projects, according to Pippin. Pippin said animal-based testing is a “habit” that will lead to funding “uncertainty” if scientific experiments diverge from the use of animals.
“It’s not just a scientific argument or an ethical argument, it’s an economic argument,” Pippin said. “[Human-based research methods] have not gotten to the point where they get as much funding from the NIH as animal research.”
Hoopes said that, like all other Ivy League schools and many institutions across the country, Dartmouth has decided to test animals — 95 to 97 percent of which are rodents — before moving on to human subjects. Hoopes added that it is harder to get funding for human-based studies because most U.S. research institutions and U.S. citizens would prefer to test a potentially toxic drug on animals before testing humans.
“We want to use [animals] to help us understand medicine and biology and physiology better for our own good,” Hoopes said. “But we don’t want to get that information if it means we’re going to abuse the animals or there’s going to be a level of discomfort.”
Pippin said the NIH claims to take a research institution’s track record for animal treatment into account when provisioning funds, but that it is “extremely unusual” for the NIH to enforce this by suspending an institution. Institutions frequently receive warning letters, however, as Princeton did in May and the University of Pennsylvania did in August, Pippin said.
The NIH will deny funding to projects that do not meet federal guidelines, according to Hoopes.
The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine is a Washington D.C.-based non-profit organization that opposes “unethical” human testing and promotes alternatives to animal-based research, according to the organization’s website.
Jay Hull, chair of the Psychological and Brain Sciences department at Dartmouth, declined to comment for this article. Other professors working in labs on campus and contacted by The Dartmouth declined to comment.