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Deaths of Harvard lab animals stir criticism

Repeat problem brings rare disclosure

The death of a cotton-top tamarin monkey at a Harvard Medical School facility on Sunday has cast an intense spotlight on a controversial area of biomedical research that has contributed to major advances but also aroused suspicion because of the secrecy that generally surrounds the operations of primate research facilities.

It was the fourth monkey death at the New England Primate Research Center in less than two years, and animal rights groups condemned the apparent carelessness that led to it. An elderly monkey was euthanized after being found in poor condition and lacking a water bottle in its cage. The groups called on federal regulators to take decisive and severe enforcement actions.

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People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, sent a letter this week to the National Institutes of Health, the federal funder of biomedical research, asking for an investigation into whether federal grant money was used to support research that was not in compliance with animal welfare regulations.

“The deaths that have been reported were unacceptable and completely avoidable, and the primate center should be taking all actions to rectify the situation,’’ said Kathleen Conlee, senior director for animal research issues at the Humane Society of the United States. “It sounds like they’re starting to take this a bit more seriously, and we’re glad they’re being more transparent about it.’’

Like many animal research centers, the Harvard facility releases limited information about the facility, the people who work there, and the research, out of fear of violence by extremists opposed to the use of animals in research. There have been some attacks, including bombings targeted at facilities and scientists on the West Coast, and an animal rights activist is on the FBI’s list of “Most Wanted Terrorists.’’

Representatives of organizations that support the need for animal research agreed that any violations of federal regulations are serious and need to be corrected immediately. But they said such unfortunate incidents do not mean that primate research - which they said is strictly regulated and overseen to ensure that it is carried out in an ethical manner - should be curtailed. Such studies, they noted, are carefully vetted to ensure that the research has merit and that it is appropriate to conduct on a particular animal.

“Monkeys are not used real often, for a number of reasons. If you can use a simpler species, that’s better - it’s responsible use,’’ said Deborah Runkle, senior program associate for the American Association for the Advancement of Science. “They’re one of the last-used species; they’re only used when lower animals won’t work, and they’re used in some research that’s been extraordinarily important to human health.’’

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Monkeys more closely resemble humans than the most commonly used laboratory animals, rodents, said Frankie Trull, president of the National Association for Biomedical Research, a trade organization whose members include institutions and companies that use animals in research. Their brains more closely resemble human brains, so they are used, for example, in research into neuropsychiatric diseases or Alzheimer’s disease. They have also been important in vaccine research. A key area of research at the Harvard primate center is the development of an HIV vaccine.

The dean of Harvard Medical School took the unusual step Tuesday of disclosing the latest monkey death, even as the investigation is unfolding.

Trull said the balance between disclosing problems and protecting scientists and staff is a difficult one. “The fear of reprisal from extremists is very real; it’s a very palpable worry of every research institution in the country, and they do have a responsibility to protect their employees, their facility, their staff, their animals,’’ she said.

Justin Goodman, associate director of the Laboratory Investigations Department at PETA, said that Harvard’s decision to speak about the incident was not typical. “I do think that speaks to the gravity of the problem and to the fact that the public has been very concerned about this,’’ Goodman said. Still, he noted that some of the responses to the previous problems, such as changing the leadership team last year, seemed to not have improved the situation, since three monkeys have died at the primate center since that change.

Critics and supporters of animal research both said Harvard’s high profile will attract more attention to the problems. Conlee argued that the US Department of Agriculture should take this opportunity to set an example, levying serious enough fines that the university could not ignore the problem. Trull said animal welfare violations are bad for the research animals but also affect the whole animal research community by giving ammunition to the critics of such work. “Boston is a little bit of a different place - it’s a bastion of biomedical research, one of the most important medical research programs in the world,’’ Trull said. “It gives them a lot higher visibility and more responsibility.’’

Carolyn Y. Johnson can be reached at cjohnson@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @carolynyjohnson.

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