Animal instincts

As the struggle between animal rights activists and scientists rages on, what's really happening inside UCSF's animal labs?

By Tali Woodward

ON JULY 14, while doctors and medical students in surgical scrubs scurried about, a motley band of 30 or so people marched back and forth outside a medical building on Parnassus Avenue, waving blown-up photos of lab animals and passing out flyers saying that monkeys in experiments run by the University of California San Francisco were going "insane."

"How does it feel to kill those that trust you?" they chanted.

As a mother led her young son along the sidewalk, doing her best to dodge the protesters, the boy looked up in horror at a photo of a monkey with Frankensteinian screws protruding from its skull. Someone took the opportunity to offer the woman a pamphlet, and when she hustled her child away, the protester, perplexed, said to her fellow animal activists, "How sad: He's seeing these upsetting images, and she doesn't even want to learn more."

Moments later, a man in a lab coat strode by. Before entering the building, he glanced over his shoulder to shout, "Die of cancer, then!"

It was another day, another demonstration at California's premier public health-sciences facility. The animal rights groups show up every few months to march and hand out sensational flyers describing secret horror shows deep in hidden labs. And university officials do their best to not even engage them.

The struggle over animal research is polarized and emotional. It's not uncommon for animal rights activists to characterize researchers as barbarians who cut up innocent animals out of joy or greed or for the scientists to regard the activists as fringe extremists who only care about mice and monkeys and not their fellow humans.

The intensity of this debate leads many people to simply turn away and has given UCSF an excuse to hide almost everything about animal research from the public. Citing "security concerns" created by radical animal rights activists who sometimes turn to harassment or violence, UCSF treats information about its experiments like highly classified secrets. University officials won't let outsiders tour the labs, won't acknowledge where all the animal research facilities are, and has administrators speak on behalf of individual researchers (including those mentioned in this story and its two sidebars). They insist in vague terms that researchers and their families are harassed but they won't even describe the incidents that have led them to be so cautious.

So the general public knows very little about the 600 to 800 animal experiments, supported largely by taxpayers, being conducted at UCSF at any given time.

But there have been some real problems behind those closed laboratory doors. In fact, last year UCSF was formally charged with violating federal law in a scathing complaint about animal conditions. And it wasn't some animal welfare group lodging the allegations it was George W. Bush's Agriculture Department.

Inspecting the labs

Once a year inspectors from the US Department of Agriculture visit every biomedical lab in the country that handles larger animals to check that scientists are complying with the Animal Welfare Act. It's common for them to note at least a few minor problems a failure to update medical records, say, or some medication that is past its expiration date.

But it's not often that the USDA files a formal legal complaint against an institution. In the past decade the agency has filed exactly 12 such complaints, and only because the labs in question had failed to correct persistent problems.

Last fall the USDA charged UCSF with 75 specific AWA violations. "The gravity of violations is great," the complaint stated. "Respondent's violations directly affected the health and well-being of animals."

Some of the charges, which cover the years 2001 to 2003, concern seemingly minor matters, like the failure to clean cages with water that is hot enough.

Others are more disturbing. Twenty-four separate charges involve the alleged failure to provide "adequate veterinary care." The university was also called to task for failing to administer postoperative analgesic, for not monitoring lambs who were recovering from surgery, and for overbreeding marmoset monkeys.

In a legal response filed last October, UCSF denied nearly every substantive charge brought by the USDA, and the complaint was set to be heard by a USDA administrative judge in San Francisco Oct. 4.

But like almost every institution that has ever been charged with violating the AWA, UCSF agreed to pay thousands of dollars in order to avoid going to court. According to the Sept. 23, 2005, settlement order, the university is paying $92,500, the fourth-largest amount on record for an AWA settlement. UCSF admitted no guilt and also avoided a full airing of the USDA's case against the university.

Still, more details about UCSF'S animal welfare issues can be found in USDA inspection reports. During one 1999 visit, a report shows, an inspector watched UCSF staff perform surgery on a lamb. "This was the second procedure performed on a lamb this day and neither animal survived," he wrote, adding that there was no record that either surgeon had been properly trained.

"Employees presently do not understand methods whereby deficiencies in animal care and treatment are reported," the inspector also noted. "It appears that there is a fear of reprisal for reporting violations."

Under the AWA, the primary responsibility for ensuring that researchers take measures to "minimize pain and distress" rests with a research facility's Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee. Made up of researc hers and at least one public representative, an IACUC must approve a scientific protocol laying out the procedures and rules to be followed for every experiment involving animals.

But regulators have not always been impressed with UCSF's IACUC.

"The IACUC does not have an adequate program for the humane care and use of animals," states an inspection report from September 1999. "If the IACUC continues to accept unacceptable conditions, they are not doing their jobs."

"You just don't see those sorts of statements in inspection reports," says Suzanne Roy, who has been researching animal experimentation for the Marin-based activist group In Defense of Animals since the late 1980s and has been focused on UCSF for several years now. (IDA has sued the university twice in recent years to obtain documents outlining animal experiments there.)

An inspection report from June 2000 notes some improvements with the IACUC, but just a few months later the committee was again getting dinged for failing to notice that researchers were straying from their protocols.

Defending the labs

UCSF officials say that problems with their animal welfare program have been overblown, and that many improvements have been made in recent years. But limited public information makes it difficult to verify their accounts, and charges added to the USDA complaint this July suggest that some problems have yet to be fixed.

Associate Vice Chancellor for Research Ara Tahmassian, who has been a UCSF administrator for almost 18 years, acknowledges that UCSF has had regulatory difficulties, but said, "We accepted there were some shortcomings in the program, and we have taken corrective actions." Tahmassian told the Bay Guardian that UCSF was recently accredited by a professional laboratory animal care association, and spent $100 million on a new facility to house lab animals.

Tahmassian is also adamant that animal welfare is inherently a top priority of the university. "If you have animals which are under stress or you are not taking good care of that animal, you don't know whether the problems that are occurring are a result of that or not," he said. "So good science is directly related to animal care."

And UCSF's scientific reputation is indisputable. It is one of the most prestigious medical centers in the country, responsible for a dizzying number of scientific advancements, and also the fourth-largest recipient of grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), totaling $438 million in fiscal 2004.

IACUC chair Linda Noble, a neurobiologist, also defends her committee: "It's a very rigorous evaluation, with only about 10 percent [of the protocols] passing the first time around," she told us. She said the committee is vigilant about legal standards and will take particular animals off of studies when they aren't faring well. "We seek the highest levels of care for our animals," she said.

Both Tahmassian and Noble said the IACUC has suspended several research projects because of concerns over animal welfare, though neither would provide specifics.

However, when the USDA filed an amended complaint against the university in July, it included 15 new violations from April of this year. UCSF was charged with failing to treat a dog that had three lesions on its flank for several days, and with keeping a large macaque monkey housed in an enclosure that was not large enough and "did not allow the animal to make normal postural adjustments."

Other charges involve cleanliness, including a failure "to clean a rabbit enclosure containing feces and urine-soaked bedding."

When told of the alleged violations from April, Roy said, "It definitely casts doubt on UCSF's claims that it's fixed the problems." She said UCSF has struggled with the same kinds of problems over many years. "It really makes you wonder why this prominent research institution can't get it right when it comes to the Animal Welfare Act. It seems like they have some fundamental deficiency there."

On the inside

Scott Anderson is one of the few nonresearchers who has inside knowledge of how UCSF treats animals. A practicing veterinarian for more than 30 years, and the former head of the city's Animal Welfare Commission, Anderson has also served as one of the public members on UCSF's IACUC for more than a decade.

When he joined the IACUC, Anderson told us, "I was kind of under the impression that very little research was meaningful in medicine that their work was frivolous. Every time I was able to deny a project, I felt I had gained a victory that these animals didn't have to be used in research."

Today, he said, he's only interested in preventing the projects that pose concrete animal welfare concerns and to hear him tell it, those proposals are rare.

"It's come a long way in the 13 years I've been there in terms of coming together and trying to eliminate animal welfare problems," he said. "They're not a bunch of crazy, maniacal people that want to kill and hurt animals. They're actually very sensitive, and they have pets of their own, and they try to do the best thing for each animal that they deal with."

But Anderson says that despite the good intentions of administrators, there are still significant challenges UCSF must face.

Over the years, Anderson says, UCSF has had to cope with a handful of scientists who haven't always had the best attitude toward animals. (See "Monkey Business," page 20). "There are some rogue researchers who think they can defy the USDA," he said.

Also, he says it's hard for the veterinary staff to make rounds at all the different locations across the city where UCSF conducts research. Tahmassian denies that this coordination poses a significant problem but acknowledges that, for all the hundreds of animal experiments being conducted at UCSF, there are only about 120 lab technicians, and just five vets.

And in his 2004 book, What Animals Want, UCSF vet Larry Carbone wrote, "I have watched animals (mice in particular, though others as well) leave the centralized animal housing facility and the daily oversight of laboratory animal professionals and travel to a research laboratory for a several-day period of experimentation ... in all reality they are largely out of veterinary sight and out of the veterinarian's jurisdiction."

Balancing principles

People who support animal research, however grudgingly, do so because of the potential benefits for human health. And representatives of UCSF seem particularly proud of one successful research story.

In the 1950s Dr. John Clements, then working in Boston, experimented on animals to ascertain how lungs work in newborn humans. He found that most animals have a substance called surfactant in their lungs that helps them breathe. But premature babies, who often struggle with breathing, lack the lung goop.

By the late 1980s Clements had moved to UCSF, where he worked with other researchers to develop a synthetic surfactant. When it was made widely available in 1990, the number of premature babies dying from respiratory problems was cut in half.

Another, more recent experiment, one that drew significant local criticism, is also poised to influence human treatments.

In 1998 UCSF researcher Dr. Steven Cheung visited a local electronics store and informed a salesperson that he was looking to purchase large speakers to use in an experiment on hearing loss in squirrel monkeys.

The salesperson refused to sell Cheung the speakers and quickly contacted People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. A brief spate of attention ensued, with people like Paul McCartney and Jane Goodall registering their disapproval of the experiment. More radical opponents appeared at Cheung's home, where they threw rocks and burned an effigy.

But in the years since, Cheung has been able to map changes in the brain that follow partial hearing loss, and consequently, to develop a po ssible treatment for people with tinnitus, or ringing in the ears. The program, which involves the application of magnetic pulses to the brain, is now being reviewed for clinical trials on humans.

Polls show that the American public supports animal research but only when efforts are made to contain animal suffering. So it seems almost instinctual that experimenting on animals should require weighing the pain and suffering of animals against the potential to understand and ultimately cure disease.

But the United States doesn't require this sort of formal comparison. The approval process for a scientific experiment, anyone will tell you, is quite rigorous particularly if it involves highly competitive NIH grants. But the central question posed during this process is: Is this a valid line of scientific inquiry, one that might yield knowledge? Later in the process, once the experiment has its basic form and the protocol is forwarded to the IACUC, the researcher must explain why he or she can't do the research without animals.

The IACUC's realm, however, is animal care, not science. The committee can suggest modifications to lessen the pain animals are subjected to, but there's no requirement anywhere along the way for an explicit cost-benefit analysis.

When we asked UCSF's Noble if her committee had ever decided an experiment was simply too severe to pursue, she told us that "before it comes to the committee, it's been deemed scientifically meritorious. If there are concerns, we can work with the [researchers]."

Martin Stephens of the Humane Society of the United States told us, "The system implies that there's this sort of consideration of pain and gain, but in the States, it's not really happening. There's no amount of suffering that's disallowed in principle."

Brigid Gaffikin helped research this story.