Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal
The University of New Mexico has suspended a physician’s research while investigating her transfer of human tissue to a private company and whether she had the proper approvals for any underlying study, internal documents show.
Officials suspended Dr. Robin Ohls’ research duties and barred her from her lab in October after learning she had acquired fetal tissue for months from the Southwestern Women’s Options abortion clinic and transferred it to a private company in Michigan, according to an internal memo obtained by the Journal.
UNM Health Sciences Center staff discovered the practice when Ohls asked if the company could reimburse the university to help cover her lab assistant’s salary, since the assistant had spent time preparing the samples for transport, the memo states.
Ohls is a faculty member in UNM’s Division of Neonatology and has been at the university since 1995, according to the university’s website.
The memo to the UNM Board of Regents, written by Dr. Paul Roth, the HSC chancellor, and Elsa Cole, university counsel, identified the company as Zietchick Research Institute LLC.
“HSC staff was concerned that: 1) an issue was being raised that would potentially infringe on the University’s policy to not buy or sell human tissue, and 2) appropriate research compliance approvals and processes protocols had not been followed,” the memo states.
An HSC spokeswoman provided a written statement in lieu of a requested interview with Roth or Executive Vice Chancellor Richard Larson. She said the Journal was citing “what appears to be a legally protected confidential document.”
“However, the University of New Mexico’s Health Sciences Center (HSC) has launched an internal compliance investigation. The investigation is on-going and therefore we cannot comment further,” Alex Sanchez wrote. “While we always strive to be transparent, and believe research must be conducted according to the highest ethical and legal standards, we cannot compromise the integrity of the investigative process by releasing details at this time.”
Zietchick was founded in 2012 by Dr. Tammy Movsas to “develop novel treatments for eye diseases that affect moms and infants,” according to its website.
It is a single-employee operation with a Plymouth, Mich., address, according to online information from a federal government program that distributes research and technology development grants to small businesses. Zietchick has received three such grants, according to the federal site.
Movsas did not respond to Journal messages.
HSC staff relayed their concerns about Ohls’ research to Larson, who immediately ordered an investigation, the memo states. Roth and the chairs of HSC’s Human Research and Rights Committee and its Human Tissue Oversight Committee were also apprised.
Roth ultimately suspended all Ohls’ research duties “and barred her from access to her lab pending completion of this investigation,” the memo said.
Roth and Cole wrote that they take the matter “very seriously” and will use the investigation “to understand the situation more fully and assess any regulatory or legal liabilities that may exist.”
Regent President Rob Doughty declined a Journal request for comment Thursday, citing the ongoing investigation.
UNM’s relationship with Southwestern Women’s Options has drawn criticism from anti-abortion advocates and some lawmakers, and a U.S. Department of Justice official recently notified Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M., that requests for a criminal inquiry had been forwarded to the FBI.
However, New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas’ office announced Thursday that it found no evidence that laws were broken in the clinic’s transfer of tissue to UNM.
UNM has used fetal tissue from the clinic in its research but said it did not pay for the samples, which were provided with the women’s consent.
Larson told the Journal in 2015 that it received fetal tissue only from Southwestern Women’s Options, and that it was used in research conducted by a consortium of 19 academic institutions.
Sanchez, the HSC spokeswoman, did not directly address a series of specific Journal questions Thursday. Among them were inquiries about the number of current UNM research projects that involve sending human tissue to private companies and the nature of Ohls’ relationship with the Zietchick Research Institute.
Ohls did not respond to a Journal email seeking comment.