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Rats, cocaine and electroshock: USC halts animal experiment after complaint

By Amanda Shaw

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    COLUMBIA, South Carolina (WHNS) — The University of South Carolina said an experiment involving cocaine-addicted rats being electrically shocked has been stopped for now.

In November, the university received an anonymous complaint about a research project conducted by the psychology department that involved shocking the foot of rats that were also administered cocaine. The project is aimed at understanding the effects of drug addiction on the brain and why many addicts continue to use substances despite the negative consequences.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) awarded the project a $248,216 grant in 2022. It is the fourth grant in four years that the assistant professor leading the research has been awarded by the National Institutes of Health, totaling more than $824,000.

USC’s investigation into the complaint revealed protocols approved by their Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) were violated, although a spokesperson said the procedures were within generally-accepted research practices. The electroshocks were administered for longer than approved, according to a letter from USC’s director of research compliance to the federal Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare.

A spokesperson for NIDA confirmed the grant for the project is still in good standing. Although NIDA finds the research valuable, an animal rights watchdog group is calling for the experiment to be stopped permanently.

Stop Animal Exploitation Now (SAEN) sent a letter to USC President Michael Amiridis on May 10, calling for the neuroscientist leading the project to be banned from animal research. The nonprofit, which would like to see animal experimentation eliminated entirely, called the research methods “barbaric.”

“This is the kind of thing that gives people like me nightmares,” said SAEN Executive Director Michael Budkie.

In his letter to Amiridis, Budkie said he is “appalled the USC IACUC approved this protocol to begin with.”

USC stands by the research approved by their IACUC, however, saying all animal experiments are subject to rigorous approval and oversight. The university says this particular research protocol was modified and additional oversight will be required if the professor resumes the study.

Below is the full statement issued by Jeff Stensland, USC’s Assistant Vice President of Institutional Relations and Public Affairs:

USC is committed to upholding the highest standards in the ethical treatment and responsible use of animals on its campuses. All research involving animals is highly regulated and subject to rigorous approval and oversight procedures. USC strictly adheres to all regulatory requirements as evidenced by its 39-years of continuous accreditation by AAALAC International and excellent standing with federal oversight agencies, including the US Department of Agriculture and the National Institutes of Health.

Following an anonymous complaint about an experiment conducted by one of our faculty members in November, the university conducted a thorough investigation and obtained opinions from external subject matter experts. The experiment was stopped, and the faculty member cooperated fully with the investigation. We determined that while the experimental procedures in question were within generally accepted research practices, they exceeded some parameters of what was previously approved by USC; therefore, modifications to the research protocol were mandated and additional oversight will be required if and when the faculty member wishes to resume the project.

Budkie, who contends that the electrical shock of any animal is unethical, said his letter to Amiridis has gone unanswered.

The experiment is one of three in the last six months involving USC animal research gone awry, according to records.

Another report sent by USC to the Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare says two rats had breathing issues after they were administered an oral gavage treatment in February. The Department of Laboratory Animal Resources (DLAR) instructed the investigator on the project to euthanize the two rats. One rat died before it could be euthanized, but the other was not euthanized until a day later, the report says.

When DLAR visited the lab, the report says they observed the procedure repeated proficiently but found the cleanliness of the metabolic caging in the lab to be unacceptable. They could not find any sanitation records, according to the report.

Another correspondence with the Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare says unauthorized procedures were performed on mice as part of a project funded by the National Institutes of Health in November. Six mice on a breeding-only protocol were injected with nanoparticles as part of an experimental procedure.

The mice had to have their tails amputated after they suffered unexpected necrosis, which may have been caused by the injections. The Office of Research Compliance said the researcher cannot use the compound that was injected into the mice anymore unless a plan to prevent tail necrosis is approved by the IACUC.

When asked about these other two incidents, Stensland reiterated “USC is committed to upholding the highest standards in the ethical treatment and responsible use of animals on its campuses.”

“All complaints are thoroughly investigated and corrective action is implemented when warranted,” he said.

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