Hopkins moves to remedy animal research problems

But even as deficiencies are fixed, lab space for rodents remains concern

April 18, 2002|By Michael Stroh | Michael Stroh,SUN STAFF

Amid the high-profile overhaul of its human research program last year after the death of a volunteer, the Johns Hopkins University has embarked on a quieter effort to fix problems in how it cares for laboratory animals.

The effort comes after federal and private animal welfare inspectors discovered deficiencies in recent years - from the way the university keeps medical records and oversees experiments to how it houses its ballooning animal population.

In about a dozen cases, inspectors found that animals were given inadequate pain medication after experimental procedures and may have suffered unnecessarily, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture records.

The USDA is investigating whether the problems violate the Animal Welfare Act, which protects most research animals, said department spokesman James Rogers. If the university is found guilty of violating the law, it could be fined or face other penalties.

Hopkins, which was forced by federal regulators last year to take steps to improve the safety of its human research program, says it has been working hard to remedy problems with its animal program. Some of the changes - either completed or under way - include increasing its animal care and veterinary staffs, creating a mandatory online training course for researchers and animal handlers, and tightening internal oversight of the university's 1,383 animal experiments.

"Hopkins is committed to the humane and proper care and use of animals in biomedical research," university officials said in a statement. "Therefore, we take all inspection reports seriously."

Even after the problems cited by animal inspectors are fixed, some researchers say one issue may prove challenging for years to come: how to deal with all the research rodents on campus.

According to the most recent head count, 55,285 animals inhabit Hopkins laboratories. They include monkeys, sheep, dogs, cats, pigs, frogs, birds, guinea pigs, ferrets, hamsters, rabbits and chinchillas.

But the largest group of research animals by far comprises 54,238 mice and rats, a population that has "just exploded" in recent years, says geneticist Roger Reeves, chairman of the university's rodent advisory committee. In doing so, the rodents have put a strain on animal caretakers and aging laboratories designed to house them.

Rodent boom

Triggered by the popularity of genetics research and the completion of the Human Genome Project, the rodent boom is affecting research labs across the country. As scientists race to figure out what each of the 30,000 or so genes in the human body does, they've increasingly turned to genetically engineered rodents for answers.

In many labs, transgenic and "knockout" mice - animals in which genes have been modified or removed in order to study their function - are becoming as important to geneticists as test tubes and petri dishes were to an earlier generation of researchers.

Hopkins neuroscientist Anirvan Ghosh, whose lab maintains a colony of about 300 genetically altered mice, has seen many of his colleagues flock to rodent research in recent years.

In the room where Ghosh until recently kept his mice, most of the cages were jammed against one another, he said. Getting to one in the center of the room meant sliding cages out of the way one at a time. Such crowding, veterinarians say, can pose heath risks for rodents and their human caretakers.

In December 2000, the situation caught the eye of inspectors from the Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care, a private organization hired by the university to examine its animal practices. In addition to the crowding, the inspectors found that Hopkins employed too few animal-care staffers and paid too little attention to safety measures among those who worked with animals, said university spokeswoman Joann Rodgers.

Because AAALAC accreditation is closely watched by federal oversight agencies, its loss can raise alarms and potentially make it more difficult for institutions to win research funding. Hopkins remains fully accredited, but that would have changed if corrections hadn't been made, said the association's executive director, John Miller.

To meet AAALAC standards, administrators ordered researchers last fall to immediately reduce their mouse populations by 15 percent and scrambled to renovate space for rodent cages on Hopkins' Bayview and East Baltimore campuses. The new facilities began accepting their first mice last month, Rodgers said.

Following the association's advice, the university also combined its three internal animal research oversight boards to reduce the chances that animals are overlooked.

The university plans to hire two additions to the team of three veterinarians who oversee animal care. It is also recruiting 21 new caretakers to join the 46 who feed, water and clean up after the animals, Rodgers said.

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