UC Davis researcher suspended over animal care allegations

Published: Sunday, Oct. 7, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1A
Last Modified: Sunday, Oct. 7, 2012 - 1:53 pm

A UC Davis professor exploring the mysteries of the inner ear is under investigation for his handling of lab animals, the third faculty member accused in recent months of "serious" violations involving research subjects.

University officials confirmed last week that Ebenezer Yamoah, a professor of anesthesiology and pain medicine, is the subject of internal probes and a federal inquiry into his work with live animals, mostly mice.

Yamoah, 48, who has federal research grants totaling nearly $1.8 million, has been suspended from any leadership role in animal research while the investigations continue, according to internal university documents made available last week at The Bee's request.

In one incident late last year, three baby mice were found sealed alive in a plastic baggie and left unattended on the counter of Yamoah's lab at the Center for Neuroscience in Davis. The trapped animals were quickly euthanized, campus officials told The Bee.

But problems persisted.

University documents reveal it was Yamoah's history of animal care violations, culminating with another incident this summer, that prompted a campus committee in August to abruptly halt his work.

The string of violations, reported every year since 2007, included improper administration of anesthesia and pain medication to lab mice and incorrect euthanasia methods on frogs, documents show. Yamoah's lab also has been cited for poor record-keeping, overcrowding in cages, unapproved breeding and use of expired drugs.

Alarmed by the history, the university's administration stepped in last month and widened the investigation.

On Sept. 28, two high-ranking UC Davis officials notified Yamoah that his "continuing noncompliance" made it necessary for them to cut off all use of his funding until an interim lead investigator was in place.

"Despite multiple occasions of animal care training and re-training, and formal letters of warning to you and your lab staff, the animal care violations have continued," wrote Provost Ralph J. Hexter and Harris Lewin, the vice chancellor of research.

Yamoah, who came to UC Davis in September 2000, told The Bee in an email Friday: "We take full responsibility for the laboratory and we are committed to ensure that we abide by the rules and regulations …

"We will remain focused in restoring hearing in the deaf in the next few decades," the neuroscientist wrote.

While Yamoah's projects represent a small piece of the school's vast animal-research work, the case has heightened sensitivity among campus officials and employees. In recent years, protests by animal rights activists against the University of California have periodically veered toward violence, with researchers receiving death threats and their homes and cars vandalized.

The timing of Yamoah's suspension is also a blow.

The accusations of improper treatment of research subjects are the second incident in the past year to hit the public university, whose federal funding and national stature are tied to maintaining legal and ethical research practices.

The work of two UC Davis neurosurgeons remains under investigation by the university's provost and the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Dr. J. Paul Muizelaar and Dr. Rudolph J. Schrot, faculty members in the School of Medicine, have been accused of performing experimental treatments on dying brain cancer patients with their consent, but without university or federal approval.

Both doctors also were accused of "serious and continuing noncompliance" and have been banned indefinitely by the university from any research involving human subjects.

The UC Davis Office of Research reported its findings on the neurosurgeons last year to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which has not announced what, if any, action it will take.

'Corrective' plan sought

Last month, the Office of Research reported its most recent findings about Yamoah to the National Institutes of Health, which is funding his five research and training grants. The federal agency gave UC Davis until Sept. 28 to come up with a "corrective action" plan to resolve existing problems, and ensure they do not recur.

All five of Yamoah's grants were awarded by the National Institute on Deafness & Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), one of 27 institutes and centers within the NIH.

Yamoah's funding level ranked in the top 10 among nearly 900 principal investigators who received research and training grants from that institute, according to NIH awards data for fiscal 2012. His annual base salary at UC Davis is about $265,000.

Descriptions of Yamaoh's work show he was delving into the intricacies of the inner ear and exploring hearing loss, particularly among the aging. The university is asking the institute for permission to transfer Yamoah's five grants to another lead researcher while investigations continue.

The NIH did not return calls for comment.

"For it to get to the point where the institution is putting the brakes on this researcher really raises the question as to what exactly is happening with the animals there," said Kathleen Conlee of the Humane Society of the United States.

In this country, the Animal Welfare Act is the only federal law that regulates the treatment of warm-blooded animals in research, exhibits and by dealers. Enforced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the law does not cover mice and rats bred specifically for research.

However, institutions such as UC Davis that conduct animal research with NIH funding must adhere to Public Health Service policy, and report any "serious" problems to the NIH's Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare. These mandates are separate from the Animal Welfare Act and apply to all non-human, vertebrate species.

NIH relies on institutions like UC Davis to self-report, then self-correct, when violations occur.

Conlee, the Humane Society's vice president for animal research, said she applauded UC Davis for promptly reporting its problems to the feds – which, she noted, some institutions may be tempted to conceal.

Even so, Conlee said she believes the NIH should consider yanking all of Yamoah's funding and sending a strong message that repeat violations will not be tolerated. Conlee said NIH funding suspensions are rare in such cases but that, as federal research money gets tighter, the agency should ask critical questions about how all its dollars are being spent.

"Why should we keep giving money to something that is clearly broken?" Conlee asked.

Worrisome scenario

The involvement of the feds, and the prospect of large funding penalties, however unlikely, present a worrisome scenario for UC Davis.

In the last decade, UC Davis research funding has grown from $358 million in 2001-02 to more than $684 million, the bulk of it federal money, according to the Office of Research. Since her arrival in 2009, UC Davis Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi has declared that building an internationally renowned research institution is a primary mission.

For years, animal research has been a key component of the university, which has both medical and veterinary schools and a College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. More than 700,000 animals are used in research or teaching at the university, which is also home to one of only eight NIH-funded primate research centers in the nation.

By far, though, the vast majority of UC Davis research animals are mice and fish: an estimated 150,000 mice and 500,000 fish, according to 2011 university data.

The redacted documents released to The Bee do not reveal how many animals Yamoah was experimenting on when his research role was halted.

Craig Allison of UC Davis' Office of Research said he believes the events so far – however disappointing for the school – illustrate an oversight system that is working.

"This reflects a process actually that worked," said Allison, director of research compliance and integrity. "Unfortunately, it's culminated in where we are now."

Allison emphasized that "the situation is exceedingly rare."

"This is a major outlier, no question of that," said Allison, who declined to discuss the case in detail because of the ongoing investigations.

Documents indicate that the matter came to a head in August, when the university's in-house committee that approves and monitors all animal research projects voted unanimously to "indefinitely suspend" Yamoah's animal research privileges.

Committee has oversight

As with human research subjects, which have their own committee oversight, animals also fall under the watchful eye of a group known as the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC). The 24-person committee includes a broad mix of university employees and the public, as well as the attending campus veterinarian.

Issues with Yamoah had been building for some months.

After the plastic bag incident with baby mice in November 2011, Yamoah's lab faced corrective action again in April of this year for using expired drugs and failing to properly administer pain medication. Then, over the summer, the committee learned that Yamoah had received an unauthorized transfer of mice from Stanford involving a strain of mice not approved for his use.

On Aug. 24, the committee voted unanimously to impose its sanctions.

"In this case, they found there had been prior incidents in this lab that had kind of built up," said Alan Ekstrand, the university's animal care committee administrator.

The university has initially determined that many of the past problems were due to "inadequate expertise and high staff turnover in the lab," according to the university's Sept. 21 letter to the federal funding agency.

In addition to the alleged animal care violations, university officials notified Yamoah late last month they had discovered "other concerns relating to your management of grants." As a result, Hexter and Lewin wrote, the university "has begun a comprehensive review of your current grants, which shall include a review of your reporting, financial management, and effort reporting, among other items."

UC Davis met the Sept. 28 deadline to explain its planned corrective action to the federal government. That letter from Lewin, the vice chancellor of research, stated that – in addition to Yamoah's suspension as the principal investigator on all five NIH grants – the university also was temporarily halting use of funds from all university grants for which Yamoah was lead researcher.

The university will pay for Yamoah to attend an intensive training program in January for researchers with recurrent problems. And, his lab will receive increased inspections, both announced and unannounced, the Sept. 28 letter stated. Additionally, Yamoah's animal subjects have been transferred to a "centralized facility" for oversight and "escorted access."

"(We) will take the steps necessary to ensure the NIH is satisfied that the issues in this case have been addressed and will not recur," said university spokeswoman Claudia Morain in a statement to The Bee.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Marjie Lundstrom



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