Sen­a­tors at­tack dog ex­per­i­ments at McGuire VA

Va. leg­is­la­tors de­cry use of a state grant for the painful tests

Richmond Times-Dispatch Weekend - - FRONT PAGE - Robin Starr, CEO of the Rich­mond SPCA BY KATIE O’CON­NOR

“I think most peo­ple think that this is unethical, and the Rich­mond SPCA cer­tainly thinks it’s unethical.”

Re­searchers at the Hunter Holmes McGuire VA Med­i­cal Cen­ter in Rich­mond have in­duced heart at­tacks in dogs, sur­gi­cally im­planted pace­mak­ers into them and trained them to run on tread­mills, all in the name of study­ing heart health in hu­mans.

Some of the ex­per­i­ments are known to in­flict se­vere pain in the dogs and pup­pies— some are as young as 6 months— while with­hold­ing pain relief.

The ex­per­i­ments are, “abu­sive and waste­ful,” and de­rive some of their fund­ing from tax­payer dol­lars, ac­cord­ing to a let­ter sent by state Sens. Wil­liam M. Stan­ley Jr., R- Franklin County, and Glen H. Sturte­vant Jr., RRich­mond, to Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s of­fice.

“Sen­a­tor Sturte­vant and I firmly be­lieve that one of the first steps we have to do here is not only get more in­for­ma­tion, but make our fel­low leg­is­la­tors aware of where our tax­payer money is go­ing, make the gov­er­nor know where the tax­payer money is go­ing, and let­ting the pub­lic in the com­mon­wealth know,” Stan­ley said.

At least $ 99,970 went to­ward the ex­per­i­ments through a state grant that was awarded to the project’s prin­ci­ple in­ves­ti­ga­tor, the let­ter states. An­other $ 50,000 grant went to­ward the re­search from Vir­ginia Com­mon­wealth Univer­sity.

“Both grants cover a pe­riod dur­ing which nu­mer­ous vi­o­la­tions were doc­u­mented,” the let­ter states.

The let­ter also asks whether the state was in­formed of “vi­o­la­tions” re­lat­ing to the ex­per­i­ments, some of which were out­lined in a re­port by the VA Of­fice of Re­search Over­sight.

“If the tax­payer money is go­ing to be spent on this, then the tax­payer should know the truth and the tax­payer’s per­spec­tive should be re­spected,” said Robin Starr, CEO of the Rich­mond SPCA, which has spo­ken out against the ex­per­i­ments. “I think most peo­ple think that this is unethical, and the Rich­mond SPCA cer­tainly thinks it’s unethical.”

A pub­lic backlash has grown around the ex­per­i­ments since de­tails came to light through law­suits and Free­dom of In­for­ma­tion Act re­quests filed by the White Coat Waste Project, a Wash­ing­ton, D. C.- based watch­dog group with a goal of end­ing tax­payer- funded an­i­mal ex­per­i­ments.

“We filed ( FOIA) re­quests to get more de­tails about the cur­rent projects hap­pen­ing at the Rich­mond VA, and dis­cov­ered through those re­quests that Rich­mond is the only fed­eral fa­cil­ity in the coun­try that is con­duct­ing so- called max­i­mum pain ex­per­i­ments on dogs, in which sig­nif­i­cant pain is in­duced and is in­ten­tion­ally not re­lieved,” said Justin Good­man, the group’s vice pres­i­dent of ad­vo­cacy and pub­lic pol­icy.

Some of the FOIA doc­u­ments the group re­ceived in­di­cated that ex­per­i­ments were still go­ing on as of Jan­uary.

The watch­dog group sub­mit­ted a com­plaint to the VA Of­fice of In­spec­tor Gen­eral that was re­ferred to the Of­fice of Re­search Over­sight, which re­leased a re­port on the ex­per­i­ments.

The goal of the ex­per­i­ments, ac­cord­ing to the re­port, was to study car­diac health — par­tic­u­larly re­gard­ing what can lead to heart ab­nor­mal­i­ties. It jus­ti­fied the use of dogs due to the sim­i­lar­i­ties in size and phys­i­ol­ogy be­tween dog and hu­man hearts.

The re­port out­lined in­stances of non­com­pli­ance re­lat­ing to doc­u­men­ta­tion and in­com­plete records of the dogs re­ceiv­ing ap­pro­pri­ate ve­teri­nary care. In some cases, the re­port con­firmed, mis­takes made dur­ing surg­eries re­sulted in the death of at least four dogs.

“I keep see­ing and hear­ing the word eu­thana­sia used— that’s not eu­thana­sia,” Starr said. “That does not qual­ify as eu­thana­sia, that’s not eu­thana­sia as the dic­tio­nary de­fines it. They’re be­ing killed.”

The pri­mary in­ves­ti­ga­tor on the project, Dr. Alex

Tan, was barred from work- ing with an­i­mals. He re­mains in his po­si­tion as a car­di­ol­o­gist at the McGuire VA. He did not re­spond to a re­quest for com­ment.

A VCU spokesman said in a state­ment that although the univer­sity awarded a one- time $ 50,000 grant to Tan for the re­search, it did not over­see the care and use of the an­i­mals in­volved.

The U. S. Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture has four clas­si­fi­ca­tions for an­i­mals in­volved in re­search. Some clas­si­fi­ca­tions state that the ex­per­i­ments cause no or very lit­tle pain, while the high­est clas­si­fi­ca­tion refers to ex­per­i­ments in which the an­i­mals are sub­jected to pain with­out relief. Some of the dogs used for the VA’s ex­per­i­ments, Good­man said, were in this lat­ter clas­si­fi­ca­tion, ac­cord­ing to the doc­u­ments the watch­dog group re­ceived through its FOIA re­quests.

Dr. Michael Fal­lon, chief ve­teri­nary med­i­cal of­fi­cer with the VA, said in a state­ment that the Of­fice of Re­search Over­sight did not deem the ex­per­i­ments de­fi­cient or find that the in­ves­ti­ga­tors did not pro­vide ad­e­quate ve­teri­nary care, but rather found ar­eas when ve­teri­nary care was not doc­u­mented ap­pro­pri­ately.

“ORO did not find any ev­i­dence that these de­fi­cien­cies re­flected any neg­li­gence, in­com­pe­tence, reck­less­ness or in­ten­tional mis­rep­re­sen­ta­tion,” Fal­lon said. He added that the deaths were re­lated to the risks associated with any com­pli­cated and dif­fi­cult surgery.

“To elim­i­nate these de­fi­cien­cies, Rich­mond VAMC amended the pro­to­cols to make the risks more ex­plicit, with in­creas­ingly strin­gent train­ing re­quire­ments and su­per­vi­sion by the At­tend­ing Vet­eri­nar­ian, and ul­ti­mately by re­place­ment of the sur­geon on the pro­to­cols,” he said.

Fal­lon said the VA’s an­i­mal re­search pro­gram “has saved lives in the past.” He said dogs are needed for ex­per­i­ments on hearts not only be­cause dogs’ hearts are more sim­i­lar to hu­mans than an­i­mals like mice or rats, but be­cause dogs are eas­ier to train for “light tread­mill ac­tiv­ity needed for some of the stud­ies, and they en­joy it, in con­trast to pigs and other large an­i­mals.”

Re­search on ca­nines has led to var­i­ous med­i­cal ad­vances, he said, in­clud­ing suc­cess­ful hu­man liver trans­plants and the un­der­stand­ing that smok­ing in­creases the risk of lung can­cer.

He also noted that stud­ies in­volv­ing dogs and other large an­i­mals are rare, since the VA typ­i­cally uses mice or rats. “Ca­nines ac­counted for fewer than 0.05 per­cent of an­i­mals used in VA re­search in 2016.”

Stan­ley, the state sen­a­tor, said he un­der­stands the rea­son­ing be­hind the ex­per­i­ments, but that sub­ject­ing dogs to so much pain goes a step too far.

“Cer­tainly we want to do what we can to help make our fel­low cit­i­zens health­ier, but not at this ex­pense,” he said. “As hu­man be­ings we are tasked with the re­spon­si­bil­ity for car­ing for those who can­not care for them­selves in the ca­nine com­mu­nity, and here we are abus­ing that trust that we have with com­pan­ion an­i­mals.”

He said he plans to file leg­is­la­tion that will ad­dress the is­sue.

“One be­ing that no ( tax­payer) money can be used for such ex­per­i­ments where a com­pan­ion an­i­mal— in a sense man’s best friend — is be­ing in­hu­manely treated in the name of sci­ence,” he said.

Leg­is­la­tion in­tro­duced to the U. S. House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives by Rep. Dave Brat, R- 7th, that would strip fund­ing for all painful dog ex­per­i­ments at the VA re­cently re­ceived unan­i­mous sup­port.

Starr said her or­ga­ni­za­tion has reached out to the McGuire VA to try and adopt some of the dogs they use for ex­per­i­ments, but to no avail.

“We have, over many gen­er­a­tions, en­cour­aged dogs to be­come our best friends and our life­time com­pan­ions, and I think most peo­ple think it is wrong to turn around and sub­ject them to a life of be­ing chopped up in a re­search fa­cil­ity to be fol­lowed by death,” Starr said. “We have made them into the trust­ing, lov­ing com­pan­ions that they are to us.”


A whistle­blow­er­within McGuire VA Med­i­cal Cen­ter took pho­tos of dogs used in con­tro­ver­sial re­search and sub­mit­ted them to the Wash­ing­ton, D.C.-based­watch­dog group White CoatWaste Project. This im­age shows vis­i­ble lac­er­a­tions on a dog kept at the fa­cil­ity.

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