OSU president cancels anthrax study proposal requiring primate euthanasia

OSU president cancels anthrax study proposal requiring primate euthanasia

Dec 01, 2009
Stillwater, Okla. -- The president of Oklahoma State University (OSU) terminated a federally funded research project that would have studied the effects of anthrax on live baboons at the school's Center for Veterinary Health Sciences.

In a written statement, OSU President Burns Hargis explained that testing of lethal pathogens on primates would be "controversial ... and outside our current research programs."

"OSU is focused on enhancing and expanding its existing research strengths, including our ongoing programs in bioterrorism research," the statement reads. "This decision does not halt this research. OSU's researcher may continue to collaborate on the project; the administration has simply decided that OSU will not have primates euthanized on its campus."

However, that Department of Veterinary Pathology researcher, Richard Eberle, PhD, told DVM Newsmagazine he believes the decision could hurt future research opportunities for the school. He cites two ongoing multi-institution, multimillion-dollar research proposals to the National Institutes of Health that are predicated on "the positive experience with this initial project."

"[They] would have brought well over $1 million each to OSU," he says.

Eberle says he is sensitive to concerns about research that requires euthanasia of primates, but thinks the work was important enough to recommend it.

"I do have some ethical concerns regarding the use of primates in research," he says. "Were I not convinced that this project could well have important implications for protection of U.S. troops in the field and civilians in the event of a bioterrorism incident, I would have passed."

The project was in the works for at least two years before Eberle was involved. Research started at the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation and the Oklahoma University Center for Health Sciences, both in Oklahoma City. Eberle was to start work when the research reached a later stage: Animal Biosecurity Level (ABSL) 3, instead of Level 2. OSU is one of a few universities with facilities nationwide that can handle ABSL3 research with "select agents" -- in this case, live anthrax -- requiring that tested animals be euthanized at the end of research for safety reasons, according to Eberle.

"The faculty are concerned about 'What's next?'" Eberle says. "Research utilizing dogs? Horses?"

This is the second case this year of controversy surrounding euthanasia at OSU's veterinary college. In February, the college newspaper reported that Madeleine Pickens, wife of OSU alumnus and philanthropist T. Boone Pickens, said she wanted to redirect her $5 million donation from the veterinary school because of the euthanasia after two surgeries of privately acquired live animals. In May, veterinary school dean Dr. Michael Lorenz used new funding to support a program that returned the animals after surgeries to shelters for adoption.

The most recent anthrax project proposal was previously approved by the school's lab animal veterinarian, research scientists, and lay persons who compose the school's Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC), according to Dr. Kenneth Bartels, the veterinary college's representative on the OSU Faculty Council.

"We went through the IACUC, reviewed all our protocols and prescribed to every regulation in the Animal Welfare Act," Bartels says. "But prior to talking to the IACUC, the president made an arbitrary decision not to do the research."

While Bartels doesn't expect the project to be reviewed, he hopes the case facilitates better communication between administration and the individual colleges. "I think they'll ask for more faculty input before they make a decision like this again," he says.

Bartels told DVM Newsmagazine he thinks a "generous benefactor" to OSU and her ties to the Humane Society of the United States may have played a role in the termination of the project.

But Bartels doesn't agree with those who argue against all animal testing.

"We use as few animals as we can, but I don't know where we'd be if we didn't use them at all," he says.