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Wednesday, November 19, 2003 - Page updated at 12:28 A.M.
UW professor barred from animal testing
By Sharon Pian Chan
After finding repeated violations of animal-treatment rules, the University of Washington has suspended professor Chen Dong from animal testing indefinitely, an unusually severe punishment.
The violations included cutting the tips of mouse tails without anesthesia, withholding food from mice without university approval and failing to euthanize mice that were suffering beyond an acceptable level, according to the university's Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee.
Dong, an assistant professor of immunology, had been running experiments without the committee's required approval. In one instance, he falsely claimed he had received approval for a study he published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation.
While Dong remains a university professor, the committee has barred him from using animals in his research indefinitely, subject to review in a year's time. The Journal of Clinical Investigation has asked Dong to write a retraction for the article.
The suspension is "very unusual," said Mel Dennis, attending veterinarian at the university who investigated the case. "Most investigators will go through their careers without ever getting a suspension."
In the past four years, the longest suspension at the university has lasted two months.
Dong, who has been investigating what causes autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis and juvenile diabetes, said in an e-mail to The Seattle Times this week, "There was no intention to subvert existing procedures or to compromise animal welfare."
In the controversial world of animal testing, Dong's case reveals the intense scrutiny university professors face when they experiment on animals. If a single mouse goes hungry, the university apparently knows about it.
Animal-rights groups have deemed such experiments cruel and unnecessary and have repeatedly campaigned against such research. The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, for instance, calls animal experimentation a "sadistic scandal."
"There is a philosophical divide between people who believe you can do research on animals and people who don't," said Susanna Cunningham, chairwoman of UW's animal-care committee, pointing out that people still have compassion for animals even if they approve of research on them.
Dong came to the UW in 2000 from Yale where he had been a postdoctoral fellow at the medical school. "The work that's being done is solid work," said Chris Wilson, chairman of the immunology department. "He's helping to define important aspects of immunological diseases."
But two months after Dong arrived, the animal-care staff started sending reports to the animal-care committee. Some of the cages were bloody, the technicians said, and it looked as though the tips of some mouse tails had been cut off. Another report said that a mouse was constipated.
The university rarely allows tail tipping, but when it does, researchers are required to use anesthesia and to control bleeding. The committee spoke to Dong informally about proper animal-research procedures and told him he could not continue tail tipping without getting committee approval.
Dong continued his research without incident until the summer of 2002, when he began an arthritis experiment without the approval of the animal-care committee. He started injecting mice with collagen to induce arthritis, which can cause painful joint swelling.
The committee discovered the experiment while reviewing a grant report in August 2002 and suspended Dong's experiment until he filed an application that the committee approved. Dong later published a study on the unauthorized experiment in the Journal of Clinical Investigation claiming he had received committee approval.
In February this year, another report came to the committee. One of Dong's researchers had asked an animal technician to withhold food from his mice so he could test their blood sugar. The researcher asked him whether fasting had been approved, and Dong's researcher said he didn't know.
The animal-care staff also noticed that the mice tails looked short and suspected Dong was tail tipping again without approval or anesthesia.
One cage looked overcrowded, a veterinary technician wrote, and the baby mice were not being properly weaned.
"This is discouraging to us and the animal techs, as well as not being fair to the mice for whom weaning is the most stressful time of their life," an e-mail said.
In March, the committee discovered Dong was also running a separate experiment without approval. Alarmed by the multiple violations, it suspended Dong and a research fellow working for him from animal research for 30 days while it investigated all his experiments.
In the process, the committee found more violations. Dong had not been euthanizing the mice based on the committee's mouse-pain scale. According to the committee, he was supposed to euthanize mice when their feet, ankle and fingers began swelling.
The committee also discovered the study he had published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation in which he claimed approval for an unauthorized experiment. It was the last straw. The committee suspended his work with animals indefinitely. It has decided to review his suspension in a year's time.
Dong's animal research has been placed under the supervision of a separate faculty member. Dong is still allowed to conduct research for his experiment as long as it doesn't involve animals. Although he has been suspended, he will still be able to apply for research grants, as long as other collaborators on the project are approved to conduct the animal research.
"I have accepted responsibility for these shortcomings and am working closely with the (animal-care committee) and my department to rectify them," Dong said in his e-mail.
As one of his last acts before he was barred from the animal-research laboratory, Dong put together two folders for his researchers: "Animal Research for Dummies" and "Lab Practice for Dummies."
Seattle Times staff reporters Ray Rivera and Tan Vinh contributed to this report.
Sharon Pian Chan: 206-464-2958 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company
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