BOSTON — A Harvard research center that uses monkeys for medical research is looking for a new director after the death of a fourth monkey in less than two years.
Dr. Fred Wang resigned Thursday after six months at the embattled New England Primate Research Center, a sprawling facility in Southborough that houses 1,700-1,800 monkeys.
Researchers at the center test advances in treating cancer, AIDS, Parkinson’s disease and drug addiction on monkeys. Frankie Trull, president of the National Association for Biomedical Research, calls this work invaluable.
“Non-human primates are a very, very important partner of humans in studying and curing diseases that afflict so many people around the world,” Trull said.
But the deaths of four monkeys at Harvard’s primate center are raising questions about the center’s ability to carry out this mission. All four deaths are blamed on human error. Someone didn’t check to make sure an automated water system was working, someone put a cage containing a monkey through a cage washing machine*. In another case, a worker caught a monkey with a net and the animal died after returning from an imaging test.
Trull isn’t hearing about similar problems at the seven other regional primate research centers around the country.
“This seems to be uncommon, certainly in this era of the highest standards of animal care at research facilities throughout the United States,” Trull said.
Harvard Medical School Dean of Faculty Jeffrey Flier did not return calls requesting comment for this story*. Nor did Dr. Bill Chin, another medical school dean who will run the primate center until Harvard hires a new director. Flier halted new research at the facility earlier this week and is creating several additional layers of oversight.
There will be added government oversight as well.
The National Institutes of Health, a major funder for the center’s research, monitors animal welfare and can withdraw funding for violations. Separately, the Animal Welfare Act sets rules for the care, cleaning, feeding and treatment of animals used in research.
U.S. Department of Agriculture spokesman Dave Sacks said that the welfare act is the basis for the active investigation into Harvard’s primate center.
“Harvard has never been known as a bad actor, so to speak, but this has been a bad stretch for them,” Sacks said. “When we come across four deaths in the last 18 months, that’s troubling.”
Sacks says the USDA has warned Harvard about animal welfare violations three times in the past, in 1993, 2006 and 2010. None of these warnings included penalties, which can go as high as $10,000 for each violation.
“Now we’re urging the Department of Agriculture to use that maximum ability,” and assess penalties for Harvard, Kathleen Conlee, senior director for animal research issues for the Humane Society of the United States said.
Conlee thinks it’s time for the USDA to get tough with Harvard.
“Because of the size and prestige of Harvard, this would send a strong message to the rest of the research community that there will be consequences if the rules aren’t followed,” argues Conlee.
The USDA says a report on the most recent monkey death will likely be out by the end of the month.
Clarification: A spokesman for the medical school did contact WBUR to say that neither Flier nor Chin would be available for comment.