UW Board of Regents: Ignore future realities at your peril
February's regular meeting of the University of Washington Board of Regents was anything but routine. With many opponents of UW's proposed new Animal Research and Care Facility (ARCF) in attendance, the Board heard my Skype presentation explaining why the plan to build the ARCF is scientifically, fiscally, and ethically a poor decision.
UW's decision to build the ARCF is a contentious issue that has set UW against formidable public opposition led by local groups Don't Expand UW Primate Testing and No New Animal Lab. Protests have attracted hundreds of participants, and the opposition has been unrelenting.
UW's reasons for building the ARCF are to address its many serious violations of the federal Animal Welfare Act and to expand its captive animal population in order to attract additional animal research funding. I explained why the new facility is unlikely to accomplish either of these goals, and why the plan is a risky financial endeavor in view of changing priorities and funding for medical research.
Pointing out that animal research for human diseases and drug development has a 95 percent failure rate, I outlined why this is due to immutable genetic and evolutionary differences, inability to standardize and replicate animal experiments, and dismal translation of animal research to human patients.
Evidence for these claims comes from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the National Institutes of Health, and other federal and non-governmental bodies, which are partnering in projects such as the Tox21 initiative to replace animal research with human-relevant research such as stem cell methods, human cell and tissue constructs, computer-based methods, and the burgeoning organ-on-a-chip enterprise.
The NIH states in its new five-year plan that "animal models often fail to provide good ways to mimic disease or predict how drugs will work in humans, resulting in much wasted time and money while patients wait for therapies," and the agency is now focusing more on human-relevant research methods "that will be better than animal models." This does not augur well for the economics of the proposed ARCF, since the NIH provides by far the largest amount of animal research funding for UW.
Recent history demonstrates the trend in medical research and the hazard for UW's plan. The NIH eliminated all research funding and other support for chimpanzee research in 2015, sending the message that the clock is ticking for animal research. I proposed to the UW Board that restricting funding for other nonhuman primate research, a major endeavor at UW and the Washington National Primate Research Center, is a logical next step.
As if on cue, the NIH responded to urging from Congress by announcing a summer 2016 workshop addressing nonhuman primate research. This follows the termination of NIH's own maternal deprivation experiments using rhesus macaques at a Poolesville, Maryland research facility. Where the animal research opposition sits now would have been unthinkable only a few years ago. Public knowledge and disapproval of animal research continue to increase, and we have momentum.
Meanwhile, UW is attempting to address its reputation as a serial violator of the Animal Welfare Act and target of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and AAALAC International, the major non-governmental accreditation body for animal research facilities. UW has been cited for repeated and serious animal care violations in recent years, and has at least twice been placed on probation by AAALAC International—a rare penalty requiring an extraordinary degree and duration of unresolved non-compliance with regulatory standards.
Public records obtained from UW report: "UW has an unfortunate AAALAC history of probation/response/accreditation/probation." Again as if on cue, this month another federal investigation of UW's animal research practices was launched.
The UW Board of Regents was also found to have committed at least 24 violations of the state Open Public Meetings Act, including while deliberating and voting on the new ARCF. This illegal plan to approve a controversial facility while excluding public comment is yet another stain on a university that has failed to meet regulatory standards while gaining the reputation of a renegade research institution.
UW should halt this construction and use the scaled-down facility to initiate its own shift from animal experiments to the research of now and the future—human-relevant nonanimal research with the promise of improved human health.
By John J. Pippin, M.D., F.A.C.C.
Dr. Pippin is a cardiologist and former animal researcher who has been on faculty at Harvard Medical School and the Medical College of Virginia. He advocates for the replacement of animal use in medical research and education, promoting more advanced human-relevant approaches.