An animal rights organization has filed a federal complaint alleging employees of Jackson Laboratory ignored animal care regulations and created conditions that led to the suffering and death of mice bred for scientific research.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals said it filed a complaint Thursday with the National Institutes of Health Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare based on the descriptions of activities from a whistleblower who worked at the Bar Harbor laboratory before being fired last year. Officials at the laboratory, known for its pioneering biomedical research, denied the allegations and said its employees are trained in the ethical and humane treatment of mice used in biomedical research.

Jackson Lab is a nonprofit known throughout the global biomedical community for its scientifically engineered mice and its research into genomics. The laboratory distributes 2.5 million mice annually across the world to researchers seeking cures for diseases and pharmaceutical companies developing therapies. The lab sells more than 8,000 varieties of breeding mice, frozen embryos and DNA samples. It is one of the world’s largest breeders and suppliers of laboratory mice.

Jackson Lab released a statement in response to questions from the Portland Press Herald denying any mistreatment of mice at the Bar Harbor facility, where about 1,200 people work. The facility complies with all federal, local and state guidelines and regulations and is voluntarily accredited by the Association for the Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care International, according to the statement.

“We are proud of the exceptional care and treatment of our mice, and we respect the tremendous impact they have on helping researchers discover causes and cures for the most complex conditions and devastating human diseases,” the statement said.

ANONYMOUS WHISTLEBLOWER

Last year, the National Institutes for Health announced it will award a total of $28.3 million to Jackson Lab over five years to fund a genome-mapping project involving lab mice. The laboratory also recently expanded its efforts to include translational and clinical genomics research and advanced genomics diagnostics tools for oncologists and their patients.

In a copy of the complaint provided to the Press Herald, PETA alleges that Jackson Lab failed to maintain an adequate animal care and use program, minimize the discomfort and pain experienced by animals, adequately train personnel working with animals and foster a culture of humane care. An anonymous whistleblower described to PETA incidents in which a staff member allegedly ripped the tips of tails off mice to obtain tissue samples for genotyping instead of using scissors to obtain a sample. The whistleblower also alleged that mice were left for days in wet boxes, causing some to drown, according to the complaint.

A PETA official would not name the whistleblower, but put him in contact with the Press Herald. The whistleblower declined to speak on the record about his allegations because of fear of reprisal.

PETA, a controversial animal rights group based in Norfolk, Virginia, is known for its strong views and grabbing headlines for its animal rights campaigns. In 2014, the group accused Linda Bean’s Maine-based lobster company of using cruel methods to kill lobsters, an allegation she denied.

The National Institutes of Health does not confirm whether complaints have been filed, discuss whether animal welfare-related investigations are taking place or comment on ongoing investigations, according to the agency. The NIH did not respond to a question about whether previous complaints have been filed against Jackson Lab.

NIH OFFICE RESPONDS

The NIH’s Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare, which oversees NIH-supported research that involves animals, “takes very seriously all allegations concerning animal welfare and appropriate animal care,” the office said in a statement in response to questions from the Press Herald.

PETA said it has not previously filed any complaints about Jackson Lab, but a senior official for the organization provided the newspaper with NIH documents about past concerns at the laboratory, including a 2014 incident in which several mice died and others were euthanized after they were inadvertently left unattended for several hours inside a cage that was double bagged for transport.

Kathy Guillermo, senior vice president in charge of laboratory investigations for PETA, said PETA representatives took the unusual approach of reaching out to the NIH and Jackson Lab to talk about the allegations before filing a complaint but did not hear back from laboratory employees. She said PETA often hears of allegations about laboratories, but complaints about an “enormous” lab like Jackson are rare.

“It has a reputation for cutting-edge science. It was particularly shocking to us to see even with that reputation there are mice who are dying of dehydration, mice who are drowning, mice who are starving,” she said. “It’s very unusual to see a laboratory of this size and reputation with these types of problems that is not even willing to sit down and have a conversation about how to fix it.”

EMPLOYEE TRAINING

Jackson Lab says its employees are regularly trained on how to care for mice and are encouraged to report concerns using a system that allows them to stay anonymous. The lab’s Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee is required to investigate all concerns involving the welfare of laboratory mice, according to the statement.

“JAX not only meets and exceeds published standards for treatment of mice in research such as those outlined in the Public Health Service (PHS) Policy on the Humane Care and Use of Laboratory Animals and the Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals, but also conducts research about animal care that sets the foundation for these standards,” the company statement said.

Any institution that receives funds from NIH must conduct research in accordance with the Public Health Service policy on humane care and use of laboratory animals. The institutions are required to report promptly to the Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare any violation of the policy.

The Public Health Service policy for laboratory animals requires that procedures minimize pain and discomfort for animals and that living conditions be appropriate for their species and contribute to their health and comfort. It also requires laboratories to provide veterinary care when needed, use proper sedation and painlessly kill animals at the end of procedures that would cause an animal to experience severe or chronic pain.

The Animal Welfare Act of 1966 regulates the treatment of animals in research and exhibition, but those regulations exclude birds, rats and mice that are bred for use in research.

Gillian Graham can be contacted at:

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