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Journal says Harvard center may have neglected primates

A scholarly journal has retracted an article published last year that suggested monkeys at the New England Primate Research Center died of illness rather than neglect by their caretakers, the journal has announced.

The journal, Veterinary Pathology, posted an explanation online June 4, saying the authors of the paper chose to retract it because new information suggests the monkeys at the Harvard Medical School facility may have instead had inadequate access to water.

The retraction follows comments by the journal's publishers in April saying they were scrutinizing the paper after the Globe raised questions about its findings and the center's former director questioned the article's integrity, saying he believes that many of the monkeys included in the research had been treated in an inhumane way.


The research center, located in Southborough, closed in May following a litany of troubles in the past five years.

Department of Agriculture inspectors found numerous violations of animal welfare rules after the deaths, an embarrassment that caused consternation across the university. It paid a $24,000 fine to the Department of Agriculture for violations of the Animal Welfare Act.

When Harvard announced its closure in 2013, to the shock of many in the research community, Medical School dean Dr. Jeffrey Flier said the decision was because of constrained finances and had nothing to do with the animal-care problems.

Established by Congress in 1962, the center is one of eight national centers supported by taxpayer funds and has made major contributions to HIV research and neuroscience.

In 2012 the center housed 2,058 monkeys, had 231 employees, and brought in about $25 million annually in federal funding.

The author of the scholarly article, Andrew Miller, is a former Harvard researcher who now works at Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine.

Miller said in an e-mail that his team chose to retract the paper because they learned that four of the 13 monkeys they studied lacked water for an unknown period of time. They therefore could no longer attribute the monkeys' condition to illness, he added.


Miller also said "every staff member, regardless of their role, worked tirelessly to ensure the health and safety of the animals housed at that facility."

Miller's 2014 study at the Harvard center, whose findings were published in the retracted paper, said the monkeys stopped drinking because they were sick with other illnesses. But the center's former director, Frederick Wang, as well as outside specialists, raised questions about those findings earlier this year.

Wang, who ran the center from September 2011 to February 2012, furnished a spreadsheet that showed a dozen squirrel monkeys were found dehydrated and dead in their cages or euthanized between 1999 and 2011, suggesting there were far more suspicious deaths at the center than originally believed.

The dead monkeys included a 10-year-old female whose water line was malfunctioning, a 4-year-old female that had no water spout in her cage, and a 3-year-old female unable to drink because her tooth was caught in a jacket.

Wang, a Harvard Medical School professor, said the article could lead to "unwarranted research" because it misleadingly suggested hypernatremia — a condition commonly caused by dehydration — develops spontaneously in the species. What Miller had actually studied, Wang said, were the results of inadequate care.

In April, Harvard responded to Wang's allegations with a statement describing its many reviews and changes to fix problems at the center. The medical school issued a statement Monday night that said it is committed to "rigorously maintaining the integrity of our research" and reviews all concerns brought to its attention.


The retraction was first reported by the website retractionwatch.com.

Laura Krantz can be reached at laura.krantz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @laurakrantz.