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Friday, December 26, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 43.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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Monkeys suffered and died at UW-Madison
Documents shed light on why researcher (temporarily) lost her privileges
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A rhesus macaque monkey at the UW-Madison.
A rhesus macaque monkey at the UW-Madison.
Credit:Wisconsin National Primate Research Center

Clearly, something significant happened for the UW-Madison to revoke the animal-use privileges of researcher Michele Basso last year. But what, exactly?

The Wisconsin State Journal's March 19 article, which revealed the suspension, refers vaguely to Basso's alleged "lack of respect for veterinarians, incomplete record-keeping and instances where monkeys developed brain injuries." It even quotes Basso plausibly describing the charges against her as vague.

UW-Madison Chancellor Biddy Martin's campus-wide email on the controversy is even more obtuse. It suggests that bad things happened, but never says what.

In fact, UW documents obtained by Isthmus give bone-chilling particulars. These include a May 2009 letter (PDF) from UW veterinarian Janet Welter recounting incidents involving at least 10 monkeys, some of whom suffered and died.

Local primate research foe Rick Bogle, who obtained a "leaked" copy of Welter's letter, wrote a blog entry chiding the State Journal for its lack of specificity. The paper subsequently posted this letter on its website, along with Basso's 21-page reply (PDF) to Welter's assertions.

Last week, the UW-Madison also released to Isthmus its response to Basso's reply (PDF). This letter and supporting documentation are being made public for the first time with the online version of this article.

What emerges from this series of documents is a portrait of a scientist who, rightly or wrongly, is intent on deflecting blame for incidents in which animals in her care endured painful and sometimes fatal outcomes. Also apparent is the frustration of UW veterinary staff and others in dealing with her.

"There's been intense frustration on both sides," says Dr. Eric Sandgren, director of the UW's Research Animal Resources Center. "Dr. Basso was frustrated because she felt the problems weren't all hers."

Basso's animal research privileges were yanked by the All-Campus Animal Care and Use Committee in February 2009, before Welter wrote her letter explaining why. Sandgren says this oversight committee rejected Basso's first two requests for reinstatement, feeling its concerns had not all been met.

But on the third try, in October 2009, the committee agreed to lift its suspension, provided that Basso resubmit protocols and agree to stricter supervision. Sandgren says members "felt that a system requiring intensive oversight would keep the problems from occurring again." Basso secured final protocol approval from another committee last month.

Bogle agrees Basso is not solely to blame for the problems in her lab ("She has done what the system has allowed her to do") but thinks she should "still be held accountable commensurate with her multiple problems. This is important because the students in her lab are learning what happens to someone who disregards veterinary staff orders. Right now, they probably think that disregarding those orders and directives isn't too serious."

Basso, in an email response, says Bogle's claims are not supported by the evidence: "There was not a single incident of noncompliance nor protocol violation leading to an adverse event for an animal. Anything that occurred was a known risk from these complex procedures that were all part of approved protocols. Not once did I disregard the authority of a veterinarian."

Michele A. Basso, an associate professor of physiology in the UW-Madison Medical School, uses rhesus macaque monkeys to study the neural processes involved in eye movements. To this end, says her UW web page, "we activate or inactivate particular regions of the brain to produce behaviors or interfere with ongoing behaviors and neural processing."

This involves both eye coil implants and head cap implants - devices screwed onto monkeys' heads to facilitate repeated access to their brains.The goal is to gain insight into brain disorders like Parkinson's and Huntington's. As the State Journal reported, Basso's research brings nearly $1 million into the university each year.

Concerns have been raised about Basso's use of animals at least since 2003, when the all-campus committee looked into "unexpected health problems/deaths in four monkeys" over a four-month period, according to the meeting minutes. Basso promised better cooperation with vet staff, and the committee stressed the need for necropsies "in cases where vets feel it would be helpful."

Welter's May 2009 letter to William Mellon, the UW's associate dean for research policy, suggests this intervention did not do the trick. Some particulars:

In April 2004, Basso ordered a CT scan for one animal "without consulting a veterinarian" and afterward "challenged the authority of a veterinarian" who refused to let the animal be moved, even complaining about the vet to several higher-ups. This led to Basso getting a critical letter from the oversight committee.

Basso, in her reply, says she "publicly apologized to the veterinarians for speaking unprofessionally." But she blames "the continued lack of consistent and explicit instructions" from the committee to researchers and argues that committee members, after belatedly hearing her out, were "satisfied with my response."

The UW's response letter, written by Welter, Sandgren and oversight committee chair Norlin Benevenga, notes the committee declined to retract its critical letter, as Basso requested, because "it did not agree with [her] assessment of the situation."

  • In January 2005, says Welter's letter, Basso treated a monkey with a drug that a veterinarian had decided was "contraindicated."

    Basso's reply claims the "contraindicated" drug was different from the one she administered, to a monkey with "acute cerebral hemorrhage resulting from an electrode penetration." The response letter from Welter et al. refutes this, saying Basso indeed disregarded instructions.

  • In January 2006, a monkey was observed with cerebral swelling and signs of central nervous system distress following an experiment. It was found dead in its cage three days later. A necropsy was performed, but "despite multiple calls, [Basso] did not contact pathologist when brain was sectioned, so no internal dissection or histopathology was done."

    Basso's reply says the pathologist "did observe the brain on gross dissection." The UW response admits Welter's wording was incorrect but reiterates that the pathologist was not given desired access.

  • In June 2008, one monkey experienced "screw/drill penetration with some hemorrhage" during surgery to install a head cap. "Veterinarian instructed research staff to call if animal's condition remained unchanged or worsened," the letter says. "Animal was found comatose the next morning; vet was never called." The monkey was euthanized later that day. Welter's letter also faulted Basso's record-keeping.

    Basso's reply asserts that rules regarding what information needs to be recorded "are not uniform across campus." The UW's response says researchers must maintain accurate records "whether or not recording requirements are uniform across campus."

  • In October 2008, Basso allegedly attempted to repair the skin of one monkey without first consulting a vet, then failed to inform vet staff that the "repair was healing poorly, due to haired skin that was curled into the incision." The vet staff repaired the repair.

    Basso's reply says she "performed an emergency wound closure" when summoned vet staff did not promptly arrive. The UW's response disputes this, saying Basso did not contact vet staff before beginning the emergency repair.

Welter's letter also outlines several instances in which animals were found injured or in distress from the devices Basso screwed onto their heads. In 2003, one monkey was euthanized after the discovery of a "large left frontal lobe abscess, with penetration of the brain by screws in both the left and right frontal regions."

Basso's reply says brain infections are a known risk in these experiments and disputes that screws caused the abscess. The UW's response quotes a pathology report that found "a likely screw-related etiology for the abscess."

Finally, Welter's letter says Basso was found to be "using non-sterilized probes, rinsed with tap water, to penetrate the dura and perform physiological readings." And when questioned, Basso purportedly professed her belief that "tap water is sufficiently chlorinated to kill off any bacteria."

Basso's reply defends her approach but says she agreed to change it after concerns were raised. It adds, "We would never insert a non-sterile object into a monkey brain."

The UW's clearly exasperated response: "Non-sterilized probes are not sterile. Tap water is not sterile. [Basso's] procedures allowed multiple introductions of non-sterile materials directly into animal brains."

Welter's letter, in summary, faults Basso for "a lengthy history of non-cooperation with veterinary staff, including failure to follow explicit instructions and reluctance to permit necropsies on animals that die." It alleges "multiple instances of proven or suspected brain abscess, and multiple events involving screws penetrating the dura, leading either to hemorrhage or abscess."

Basso's reply says her experiments are "more complicated" than those of other researchers, defends her relationship with vet staff, and claims steps have been taken to "minimize the likelihood of negative outcomes" in future experiments.

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