Pitt lab investigation ends on mixed note


The headquarters of the National Institutes of Health, whose Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare concluded its investigation of alleged ethics violations in several Pitt labs earlier this month. (Wikipedia Commons)

By Henry Glitz | News Editor

A new report from the Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare has declared an end to the investigation into alleged animal cruelty in laboratories affiliated with Pitt.

The report, cited in a letter last Monday from Axel Wolff — OLAW’s director of compliance oversight — to George Huber, Pitt’s vice provost for research conduct and compliance, called the University’s actions to correct treatment of animals “appropriate” in the specific situations the organization had investigated.

Following the identification of several problems in Pitt’s animal lab testing programs and sufficient subsequent institutional efforts to remedy them, the agency concluded its investigation earlier this month.

OLAW, a division of the National Institutes of Health, was investigating allegations of animal cruelty in Pitt labs against mice, rats, chimpanzees and rabbits since late February at the request of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. PETA Senior Vice President for Laboratory Inspections Kathy Guillermo found the results of the OLAW investigation unconvincing.

“Given that a so-called ‘investigation’ by the National Institutes of Health consists of simply asking institutions like University of Pittsburgh to respond to allegations, we are pleased that the federal agency confirmed a number of them,” she told The Pitt News. “Pointless experiments, such as the poorly designed sepsis study in which 800 mice have been used so far, must be ended.”

The sepsis experiment Guillermo referenced was not mentioned explicitly in the report Wolff sent to Huber.

An “exposé” PETA published earlier this year had initially spurred an earlier investigation by the United States Department of Agriculture in early March, which found “no non-compliant items … during this investigation.”

Guillermo called the USDA’s investigation insufficient and requested another investigation, this time from the NIH’s own compliance agency.

“The U.S. Department of Agriculture inspection report is not comprehensive and gives only a glimpse of some aspects of any laboratory,” Guillermo told the University Times in March.

PETA’s request for a new investigation cited the USDA’s failure to scrutinize laboratories where mice and rats specifically were used, saying that the agency’s focus on labs with primates allowed abuses to pass unnoticed.

OLAW’s report, cited in Wolff’s letter, investigated labs affiliated with Pitt and the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh for “noncompliance” with wider federal regulations on the treatment of lab animals under the Policy on Humane Care and Use of Laboratory Animals.

OLAW’s report reviewed labs with rodents — something the USDA’s report didn’t do — as well as those with primates and other kinds of animals. According to Wolff, irregularities uncovered during OLAW’s investigation of the labs in question were either within the boundaries of existing legislation or were corrected after investigators found them.

“It is not unusual to find dead research mice in a large animal care and use program,” he said in his letter. “Some animal deaths and phenotypic abnormalities were expected under the approved protocol.”

Wolff also noted discoveries of “wet or flooded cages” that contained “living and/or dead mice,” as well as “live mice in a plastic bag.” In both cases, the report indicated that University employees had taken sufficient corrective actions following OLAW’s investigation.

In a press release, Pitt pointed to an annual lab inspection conducted by the USDA during the week of May 15 that the University passed, as well as the medical significance of developments made in labs that had been under investigation.

The University’s animal research program has led to a number of breakthroughs in medical care, and the University of Pittsburgh is committed to the highest standards of care for all research animals,” the release stated.

PETA, however, continues to contest both points. At a protest earlier this month prior to the publicization of OLAW’s report, Ashley Byrne, associate director of campaigns at PETA, questioned the benefits of testing on mice and rats for human health.

“This is not going to benefit people,” Byrne said. “These are resources that could be going to better places.”

The OLAW report also mentioned a former Pitt employee who sought employment in one of the University’s labs in order to collect information for PETA. The University asserted and OLAW accepted that “in a few situations, the adverse activity occurred due to direct action/inaction of the [PETA] informant.” According to Pitt’s release, the informant was a PETA supporter who worked at the University from September 2016 to February 2017.

Guillermo also took issue with this assertion.

“Pitt’s attempt to blame PETA’s eyewitness is an obviously shabby and shameful attempt to deflect blame from where it belongs — on Pitt staff,” she said. “In fact, the eyewitness reported every incident of animal suffering and worked tirelessly to spare animals the misery that they were subjected to daily.”

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