Sunday, March 28, 2010

Basso: Cover-Up? Conspiracy? Scandal.

The Wisconsin State Journal reported on the suspension and reinstatement of Michele Basso, PhD, a scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who uses monkeys in her research into on the neurology of voluntary movement. (See: UW-Madison suspends researcher over animal welfare problems. Deborah Ziff. March 19, 2010.) Her method entails sewing scleral search coils to monkeys’ eyes, screwing hardware to monkeys’ skulls, implanting electrodes in their brains, limiting their access to water in order to motivate them to perform certain visual tasks, and restraining them for periods of many hours.

Some of her publications are available on the Internet. See for example:

Substantia Nigra Stimulation Influences Monkey Superior Colliculus Neuronal Activity Bilaterally Ping Liu(1) and Michele A. Basso(1,2) J Neurophysiology 2008. First published June 25, 2008. (1)Departments of Physiology and (2)Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences, School of Medicine and Public Health, University of Wisconsin–Madison, Madison, Wisconsin. (If the above link doesn't work, try this one:

UW-Madison Chancellor Biddy Martin sent a letter to all university staff trying to explain the situation.

Neither the Wisconsin State Journal nor Chancellor Martin provided much detail on the reasons for Basso’s suspension. In fact, problems associated with Basso’s lab began to be documented and to generate internal discussion by at least 2003.

Basso herself was anxious to keep those details out of the public’s view. This may have been related to her 2006 testimony before WI Congressman Petri’s Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security's Legislative Hearing on H.R. 4239, the "Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act." The subcommittee’s hearing seems to no longer be available, but a rebuttal to the claims Basso made during the hearing is. See: Letter to Howard Cobb, Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security, May 25, 2006.

Of particular note, and germane to the situation at hand, are the following assertions in her sworn testimony:

“It is critical to point out that biomedical research is subject to very strict regulations and oversight.”

“We have an animal care and use committee for each school at Madison and an all campus committee that oversees all schools. My research meets or exceeds all standards set by the USDA, Public Health Service Policy as well as local guidelines for the care and use of non human primates in research.”

“We abide by the well-known 3R principle concerning the use of animals. Whenever we can, we reduce the numbers of animals used, we replace the animal model with some other or we refine the technique we use to ensure maximal well-being of the animals.”

“Working on animals is a privilege that neither I, nor my colleagues take lightly.”
She made these sworn statements on May 25, 2006. But for the preceding three years, UW Research Animal Resource Center vets, the university officials charged specifically with direct monitoring and assuring federal regulatory compliance of researchers’ approved protocols, had been citing her lab for serious problems. See for instance the minutes from a special meeting of the medical school IACUC held on October 30, 2003. See too the September 30, 2006 Grad School IACUC minutes.

It seems fairly clear that her claims about exceeding federal standards were self-serving at best. But now, only years later, we read the Wisconsin State Journal's article and the Chancellor’s veiled apology for the university’s failed oversight of her activities.

What the Chancellor and the paper didn’t tell the public about Basso’s work are the details of the lab’s many and continuing problems. This, in and of itself, is cause for grave concern; it at least appears to be a cover-up and an effort to keep the details out of the public discussion. If the university and the paper had any communication about how the story might be reported, then this could be a conspiracy to confuse the public or at least to limit the scope of the scandal.

In a letter dated May 4, 2009, written to William Mellon, Ph.D., Associate Dean for Research Policy, Janet Welter, DVM, Chief Campus Veterinarian, summarized in clear and unambiguous language, the history of problems associated with the Basso Lab.

The May 4, 2009 letter was purportedly included in the binder of information that the university gave to the Wisconsin State Journal, and from certain statements in the article, this appears to be true. You can read Welter’s letter to Mellon here.

How should we balance the statement made by Basso that tap water is chlorinated sufficiently to sterilize materials that will be placed in living brain with Chancellor Martin’s claim: “The particular case at issue concerns a UW-Madison researcher whose work on brain function in non-human primates has been published in major international journals and whose research is widely considered among her peers to hold promise for the treatment of disorders as debilitating as Huntington's and Parkinson's disease”?

Basso's "peers" are likely other scientists also using animals and not making any more progress than she is. Martin must not have felt it wise to mention Basso's supporters by name.

Does it make any sense to believe that someone with a poor grasp of germ theory will lead us to a cure for complex neurological diseases, or that someone who disregards the veterinary advice of her own institution’s vets is genuinely refining the techniques she uses “to ensure maximal well-being of the animals”?

The bigger questions here seem to be:

1. Why did the Wisconsin State Journal keep the details so vague?
2. Why did the university allow Basso to run amok for so long?
3. Why did the university reinstate her, particularly after it banned Ei Terasawa from using monkeys for two years?
4. Why has the university refused to provide any documents regarding the Basso case in response to formal open records requests from its critics?
5. Why would anyone believe anything the university has to say about its animal care and use?


Anonymous said...

because they all belong to the same corruption circle

mary hudson said...

I find this type of behavior dispicable!!! And we call ourselve compasionate. I know research is necessary but NOT in this manner. Forget this treatment if this is the only way to get information.

Anonymous said...

Why was Basso reinstated? Because she received a million dollar NIH grant. Seriously. Look it up.