UW-Madison professor barred from lab for potentially dangerous experiments

2010-05-11T20:50:00Z UW-Madison professor barred from lab for potentially dangerous experimentsBy DEBORAH ZIFF and RON SEELY | Wisconsin State Journal madison.com

A UW-Madison professor who studies an infectious disease lost his laboratory privileges for five years after conducting unauthorized experiments with a potentially dangerous drug-resistant germ.

One person who worked in professor Gary Splitter's lab got brucellosis but university officials don't know if that individual, who has since recovered, caught the strain used in the unauthorized experiments. Brucellosis is a disease that is usually found in farm animals but can spread to humans and cause flu-like symptoms or worse.

"These are extremely dangerous compounds," UW-Madison Provost Paul DeLuca said. "They are very highly regulated and we want to be in full compliance with federal laws."

The 2007 experiments, which the National Institutes of Health calls a "major action violation," in part prompted the university to beef up its biological safety oversight. The university was also fined $40,000.

The university on Tuesday released some 500 pages of documents related to the investigation, which took more than two years to complete, in response to a State Journal records request.

Splitter, a tenured professor in the School of Veterinary Medicine, won't be allowed to work in a lab for five years because of the violation, a stiff punishment for a faculty member whose livelihood depends on publishing papers based on lab experiments. It's a rare discipline, DeLuca said.

Splitter said he was not aware of the unauthorized experiments, which he said were conducted by graduate students in his lab, and that the university did not properly educate researchers about guidelines for working with antibiotic-resistant strains.

"The University of Wisconsin failed to provide the right education," Splitter said. "The bottom line is that this wasn't just an investigation of one individual. It was a major meltdown by the university."

Splitter has spent much of his career studying brucellosis in an effort to better understand the disease and potentially find a vaccine.

His lab created antibiotic-resistant strains of brucellosis and inserted them into mice in 2007 and possibly earlier, university officials said, without approval from local or federal agencies. The concern is that if someone contracted the antibiotic-resistant version of the disease created in the lab, treatment might have been more difficult.

DeLuca said the experiments didn't pose a "different level of danger or concern" than other disease studies, but the problem was they weren't approved. They were conducted in a lab with a high safety level and the strains in question were destroyed after they were discovered, officials said.

The university learned of the stock of antibiotic-resistant strains after a round of university-wide lab inspections by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They began investigating Splitter's lab in early 2008.

University officials said evidence gathered during the investigation contradicted Splitter's claim that he was unaware of the work being done by his students.

Splitter said part of the problem was understaffing in the university's bio-safety program, which is charged with training scientists about regulations. At the time of the experiments, he said, there were only two people employed in the program and neither were trained biologists.

In the past year, UW-Madison has hired five biological safety officers and a new director, said Bill Mellon, associate dean for research policy.

While the staff additions were prompted by more than just Splitter's lab infraction, "it obviously showed us there were some deficiencies and leadership problems," he said.

Splitter, who has been at UW-Madison for 32 years, remains a member of the faculty and continues to teach and publish.

Splitter's lab was closed Dec. 12, 2008, while the investigation was ongoing. That time will be credited to his five years without lab privileges, which will be reinstated in December 2013.

"Gary Splitter is one terrific scientist," DeLuca said. "He's had an excellent career and done really excellent work, however that does not excuse doing experiments with select agents that are not approved."

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