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Details, details about a UW research violation

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What did The Wisconsin State Journal not know and when didn't it know it?

On Oct. 23, the paper ran a story on the UW-Madison's push to create a new high-ranking post, vice chancellor for research, to address woes including aging facilities and a "major action" violation by an animal research lab on campus.

The article by Deborah Ziff, the State Journal's outstanding higher ed reporter, went on to say: "The university will not release details of that incident because of an ongoing investigation."

Isthmus opinion offering from local animal rights activist Rick Bogle ("Say No to New UW Germ Lab," 10/8/09).

Bogle's column reported that a UW graduate student and others had genetically modified unspecified "select agents" - a grab-bag term for infectious and dangerous diseases - without approval from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), as is required.

Documents obtained from the UW by Bogle in late September and posted with his column on Isthmus' website,, contained additional details. That between May and October of 2007, three individuals set out to "create a double deletion mutant." That select agents "were grown in broths and injected into mice." That proper approvals were not obtained, "nor would the experiments have been approved if submitted...."

The UW's letter cited another violation, in 2004, when a scientist created an unauthorized library of mutants. Both incidents, the UW admitted, "show a fundamental lack of understanding" of NIH rules.

The NIH, in an April 2008 letter to the UW, was even harsher: "Given the serious potential consequences to public health posed by such experiments, the Office of Biotechnology Activities (OBA) is extremely concerned that the research was initiated without the necessary local and federal approvals."

None of these arguably interesting and relevant details have been reported by the State Journal. (William S. Mellon, the UW's associate dean for research policy, confirms that the UW also "responded to an open records request of the State Journal" on this matter, but couldn't say prior to press time what records were provided.)

Perhaps this is what happens when a newspaper slashes resources to the bone. That the State Journal is having trouble keeping up with the news was evident in its failure to devote ink to the governor's appointment last month of Steve Ehlke as a Dane County judge, a significant news event.

But Ziff, responding to an email from Isthmus noting the availability of these details, suggests the decision wasn't an oversight but deliberate: "The documents you posted did shed a little more light on the incident, but still don't include the name of the researcher, what type of research he was conducting, or what exactly happened."

Bogle finds this perplexing, since the UW "provided me correspondence and records that included much detail, even though the names of the specific diseases and researchers were censored." Eric Sandgren, who oversees animal research at the UW, has this to say: "I agree that the documents provide a good sense of what happened."

Moreover, the UW, in a letter to Bogle, said naming researchers or specific agents would violate federal law.

In other words, if the State Journal is waiting for these details to be released before it writes about the many details that have been, this story will never get covered in its pages.

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