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Health & Science

UTMB in Galveston Defends Treatment of Research Monkeys and Other Lab Practices

The federal government is investigating the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston for its treatment of laboratory monkeys, along with other laboratory practices from a 2014 study of the deadly Marburg virus.


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Federal officials at the National Institutes of Health confirmed Monday that its Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare is investigating UTMB concerning at study involving a dozen macaque monkeys.

The investigation follows a January visit to UTMB by auditors, who released a report citing UTMB for dozens of major and minor problems with the study. Some involved animal welfare practices but other citations involved data collection and record-keeping.

The study involved UTMB scientists injecting the macaques with the dangerous Marburg virus, which is similar to Ebola. They then tracked how quickly the monkeys became ill.

Dr. Dave Niesel, UTMB's chief research officer, said the expectation from the beginning was that all the monkeys would die or be euthanized after falling ill. UTMB is developing stocks of Marburg virus that will be available to researchers worldwide, but the study was needed to assess the correct dosage for the macaques.

"Every medical advance in the last century has come from animal research and that's certainly the path we're on with this virus," Niesel said.

The audit notes that some monkeys died overnight. Auditors wrote that if lab workers had been monitoring the monkeys then, they could have been euthanized earlier, avoiding unnecessary suffering.

But Niesel countered that having someone check the monkeys more frequently was not part of the agreed-upon protocol. He also says it's very difficult to do in a level 4 biocontainment lab.

"It's inside a sealed lab that has submarine type doors," he said. "People get in spacesuits, and they plug in their own air supply, and they work in very highly-controlled environments. Night operations would require that our personnel would have to go in the dark."

In addition, if someone inside the lab had an accident at night and was accidentally exposed to Marburg or another deadly pathogen, a support team would not be available, Niesel said.

Auditors also criticized the study for lapses in paperwork and data collection.

UTMB is contesting the audit findings, saying it conducted the $2.4 million study using "quality study" protocols and not "Good Laboratory Practices" (GLP) protocols. This was by agreement with the funder, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, Niesel said. But the auditors used the GLP protocols.

"They came back and graded us on a different yardstick," said Curtis Klages, the biocontainment veterinarian for the Galveston National Laboratory at UTMB.

"A great analogy is we studied for a history and they came in and gave us a math exam. It's that cut and dried."

A team from UTMB has a visit planned in D.C. on Sept. 30 with NIH officials to discuss the audit.


The original NIAID audit

UTMB letter of Response

NIAID response to our response