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Hunter Holmes McGuire VA Medical Center - Richmond, VA
VA Research Program
Thursday, October 12, 2017It is long-standing VA policy that, in the interests of transparency and accountability, each VA facility that supports animal research is expected to report all deficiencies and the measures taken to correct them, according to the requirements of the applicable Federal oversight bodies – The Office for Laboratory Animal Welfare (OLAW) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the VA Office of Research Oversight (ORO), and the office of the VA’s Chief Veterinary Medical Officer (CVMO). This ensures that the information is available to the public, including the organization that brought its concerns to the VA Office of the Inspector General (OIG), which asked ORO to investigate. It is important to VA that the public be well-informed about the work done by VA, and VA welcomes input from the public to hold VA accountable.
True accountability requires that all relevant information be evaluated in context. The concerns about animal welfare that were raised in the allegations made to VA OIG had been identified, corrected, and reported promptly and appropriately by the station, long before the concerns were brought to VA OIG. The station had provided additional training to the investigator, with regard to both the ethical and regulatory standards, and the specific surgical techniques required, and had also provided additional veterinary guidance during the procedures. The local oversight body, the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) ultimately determined that it was necessary to require that the surgical procedures be carried out by another researcher. The research has proceeded since then without any further complications. ORO reported that it “could not conclusively determine that the surgical complications referenced in the allegations were evidence of ‘negligence’ or ‘incompetence’ on the part of the Principal Investigator (PI) as alleged”, but the IACUC had already determined nonetheless in December that that individual was now no longer permitted to work with animals. All of the other allegations made to VA OIG were found to be unsubstantiated.
Because of VA’s commitment to conducting animal research according to the highest ethical and regulatory standards, the investigation conducted by ORO was not limited to the specific items alleged to VA OIG. Instead, ORO reviewed the whole of the animal research program at McGuire VAMC, to evaluate the context in which the animal welfare problems arose. The ORO report includes other findings to be addressed, to improve the program and reduce the likelihood of deficiencies in animal welfare arising in the future, while also supporting VA’s commitment to work to address the needs of Veterans suffering from medical disorders for which the existing treatments are inadequate. VA is implementing all of ORO’s recommendations for the McGuire VAMC, and is also developing mechanisms for closer Central Office oversight of all VA canine research.
VA recognizes that research studies of canines raise very difficult ethical and emotional problems. On one hand, the bond between humans and canines is very close, and many people think of their pets as members of their families. On the other hand, both human and canine members of our families suffer from medical problems that cannot be addressed without studies of canines. The dilemma is that we can only choose to stop the research if we are prepared to accept that medical progress on those problems will also stop.
Currently, over 99% of all animals studied in research are rats or mice, and less than 0.05% of those studied at VA are canines. Studies of canines are approved only if the researcher provides compelling evidence that the work is scientifically valid and there is no other way to gain the information needed, and if the protocol by which the study is to be carried out is approved by the IACUC as appropriately addressing the welfare of the canines that are studied. Work that met these requirements was the basis for many of the advances in medicine that we take for granted. For example, many people know of a family member or friend who is alive because of an implantable pacemaker. The development of these devices was based on VA research with canines, without which all of those family members and friends would not have pacemakers. The discovery of insulin was a result of research with canines, and was so important that a Nobel Prize was awarded for it. Without those studies of canines, insulin would not be available to all the people we know who need insulin to manage their diabetes. Other canine research has been crucial to developing tests for and treatment of various types of cancer, and developing numerous life-saving cardiovascular surgical procedures. At VA right now, there are only a few such studies being conducted, but they include work to improve the medical care available to people with diabetes, improve heart function after heart attacks, and reduce the vulnerability of people with spinal cord injury to fatal respiratory infections.
Biomedical research conducted by the VA has improved the lives of many millions of Americans, including millions of Veterans, and we are committed to doing the same for millions more. We value public awareness of this work, including awareness of the passion and attention to animal welfare that characterizes the vast majority of VA researchers who are dedicated to improving life for Veterans and other people and animals, as well as awareness of the improvements that are needed to address the difficulties and problems that come up. Those who focus only on the shortcomings, make unfounded allegations, and present distortions as facts, wrongly compromise the faith of American citizens and lawmakers in the integrity of the VA system to do this vital work, interfere with the efforts of the many responsible research personnel who are dedicated to improving health care, and do a disservice to our Veterans and other human and animal patients worldwide.