Despite a meeting room crammed with protesters, the University of Washington (UW) Board of Regents on Thursday unanimously approved plans for a new, $123.5 million animal-research facility.
The two-story building, which will be entirely underground, will allow the university to boost the number of mice, pigs, dogs, rabbits and primates used in biomedical research. Located near the shore of Portage Bay, it also will help consolidate animal experiments that are now spread across campus.
“If we are to continue in the research business, which we believe is essential for the progress of medicine, we have to have adequate facilities,” Board Chairman Orin Smith said after the meeting.
About 30 protesters lined the room, many holding signs that read “No New Animal Lab.”
UW sophomore Sarah Olson, one of two protesters allowed to present public comment before the vote, called on the UW to be a leader in phasing out animal experimentation.
“We think this is a pivotal moment in the history of biomedical science,” she said. “UW has the chance to be a pioneer in the science of animal-research alternatives.”
Nationwide, the number of animals used in research has decreased significantly, Olson pointed out. Earlier this year, Harvard Medical School announced plans to shut down its troubled primate-research center.
“Students believe the UW should not increase its animal census when the trend across the nation is to reduce lab-animal numbers,” she said, presenting the board with a petition signed by more than 4,500 people.
The UW now houses about 650 monkeys and other primates in two facilities, said David Anderson, UW executive director of health-sciences administration. The new center would add space for an additional 280.
It also would allow the university to increase the number of rodents used in research by 10 to 20 percent, and nearly double the number of pigs — which are increasingly used to test medical devices because their cardiovascular systems are so similar to humans’.
UW researchers already employ alternatives to animal experiments whenever possible, Anderson said. But scientists still don’t understand living systems well enough to replicate them with computer models or cell and tissue cultures. Studies in animals are vital, particularly in order to make the leap from laboratory research to new medical treatments, he said.
UW researchers use primates for research on vision, the search for an AIDS vaccine, studies of inner-ear disorders and a wide range of other projects.
Law student Amanda Schemkes, who spoke to the board on behalf of the Animal Rights Activism Committee of the National Lawyers Guild’s, stressed the grim conditions experienced by many research animals.
“You have primates who have been living in cages for years, who only come out of those cages to have pain inflicted on them,” she said in an interview.
The UW’s primate facility has run afoul of regulations in the past.
In 2006, the Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care — a regulatory agency that inspects and certifies animal-research facilities — found so many problems it placed the school on probation. Among the deficiencies were inadequate facilities and oversight, and the fact that animals were kept in scattered locations across the campus.
The UW invested more than $25 million in improvements, and the accrediting agency lifted the probation in 2008. Since then, the UW’s compliance record has been generally good.
But in 2011, the U.S. Department of Agriculture fined the university $10,893 for allowing a monkey to starve to death and for conducting unauthorized experiments on several other primates.
Smith, who has toured the existing primate facilities, described them after the meeting as a warren of rooms that were never designed to house research animals. “They are inadequate for both people and animals,” he said.
The activists were unhappy Thursday when the board approved the new lab without any discussion. Smith said the regents had discussed the project at a previous meeting and had also resolved earlier concerns over the cost.
The new lab will be located next to Foege Hall near the intersection of Northeast Pacific Street and 15th Avenue Northeast. Money to pay for the lab will come from an internal-lending program that allows the university to issue bonds. Interest on the bonds will be covered by overhead the university receives from research grants.
No state or tuition money will be used for construction, which is expected to start in 2015 and be finished in 2017.