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Primate research centers -- including the UW's --
accused of conducting redundant research
By Andrew Sengul
November 29, 2005
Nonprofit investigators have alleged that internal documents from the UW's Washington National Primate Research Center (WNPRC) shed light on a history of poorly justified research, cruel experiments and wasted federal money.
"Even if you're not concerned about the pain and suffering these animals undergo, you have to wonder why we're spending taxpayer money on the same research projects over and over again," said Michael Budkie, executive director of Stop Animal Exploitation Now (SAEN).
Budkie founded SAEN in 1996 to "force an end to the abuse of animals in laboratories," and has since requested thousands of pages of documents from labs across the country in order to uncover what he sees as cruel and unethical activity at the facilities. SAEN publishes reports on animal experimentation every year, and 2005's release focused on primate research labs, including the WNPRC.
While previous animal rights campaigns have focused on alleged cruelty at research facilities, SAEN's press release was aimed at showing a pattern of redundant and unnecessary research at the WNPRC and other labs that use primates as experimental subjects.
Albert Fuchs, Chris Kaneko and Michael Shadlen, a trio of research professors in the University's psychology and physiology department, are among the most prominently featured scientists in Budkie's collection of documents. All study how the brain controls eye motion at the WNPRC, presiding over some of the center's longest-running research projects. Fuchs filed his first grant application for primate eye-tracking studies in 1971, Kaneko in 1986 and Shadlen in 1997.
"There are six muscles that control the movement of the eye, making it one of the simplest motor systems to study," Fuchs explained. "At the time I started looking at the control of eye movements, there was no data on how the brain deals with movement. Then, as I began to understand what motor neurons do, I began to work my way back to higher structures in the brain."
The three scientists perform similar experiments, but Kaneko said such a research model is necessary to investigate a system as complex as the brain. The basic procedure for primate eye-tracking experiments has remained largely unchanged since the 1970s: a monkey is strapped into a restraint chair, taught to visually track the movements of a light across a screen and given drops of water or fruit juice as a reward for successfully following the moving lights.
Electrodes implanted in the primate's skull track the direction of its eyes and the electrical activity in its brain.
In SAEN's press release, Budkie points to the high degree of similarity between the three scientists' projects as well as the length of their grants to make a case that their research is duplicative and produces little new information.
"They might change a few variables or other minute things, but for the most part they're doing the same procedure again and again," Budkie said. "The usefulness of the data is extremely tenuous, and when you take into account the limited utility versus the very high level of expense, you have to wonder if there are other alternatives."
Among documents collected by Budkie are applications submitted by primate researchers to the UW's Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC).
Whenever a professor begins or renews a research project at the WNPRC, he or she must submit a written summary of the procedure to the IACUC. The committee must review and approve all procedures performed at the lab to ensure animals are not treated cruelly or are otherwise misused.
There is little visible difference between procedures written by Fuchs, Kaneko and Shadlen. One of the main documents cited by Budkie as proof of redundant research at the WNPRC is the transcript of an e-mail conversation between Fuchs and an member of the IACUC that was found among the animal use proposal records. The committee member was concerned over the similarities between Fuchs's proposal and that of another professor at the primate center whose name was withheld.
In the letter, the committee member writes, "I'm a little nervous that your protocol is basically identical to [name redacted]'s protocol ... is it possible that the same person prepared both protocols and made some editing/inclusion errors?"
Fuchs replied that he had included elements of the other professor's experiments in his proposal because there was a chance he would want to use them in his own research.
"With regard to the similarity of Dr. [name redacted] and my proposals, we use essentially identical procedures in our experiments. Indeed, Dr. [name redacted] learned many of them from me when he was my postdoc," Fuchs wrote in a letter to the IACUC's committee member.
To Budkie, the letter bespeaks a professional culture where the risks of innovative research are avoided in favor of known grant-winning topics.
"Neurological research is, in my opinion, the most redundant research out there," Budkie said. "Scientists have to deal with the publish or perish mentality and they have to bring in research dollars for their schools, so what better way to do that than with a protocol that's already been approved?"
Fuchs said it is by no means atypical for scientists to copy each others' protocols, and that experimental protocols used do not necessarily have any bearing on the content and relevance of the data produced by the experiments.
"Identical procedures are fine, but not identical experiments," Fuchs said. "The only duplication we do is of procedures that have been accepted by the scientific community. Some methods, like taking blood samples, are common to us all, and we wouldn't want to reinvent the wheel for every project. Duplication of protocols is a good thing because it means we're using the most tried-and-true methods."