“I feel like a chump.”
That was the reaction of the chief science officer at Lovelace Respiratory Research Institute upon learning that diesel emissions experiments at the Albuquerque lab had been based on a rigged Volkswagen Beetle, according to a court deposition.
Those experiments, particularly because they tested diesel emissions on 10 macaque monkeys placed inside an “inhalation exposure chamber,” thrust the longtime lab at Albuquerque’s south end into a worldwide spotlight.
The work, done under a $700,000 contract with an industry group funded by Volkswagen and other manufacturers, appeared to have been part of VW’s campaign to market new diesel vehicles. A year later, the company would be rocked by revelations that it had used emissions-cheating software to fool regulators about the level of nitrogen oxides emitted by those vehicles.
“There’s no doubt there was a dupe,” said John Gluck, a University of New Mexico emeritus psychology professor who once sat on an LRRI research review committee.
But the lab has been in the cross-hairs in the past, most notably when federal inspectors have uncovered violations of the Animal Welfare Act over the years.
There have been at least a dozen such violations since 2015 that have involved the handling of animals, problems with enclosures, failure to consult a veterinarian when animals showed symptoms of illness – resulting in at least one death of a monkey – and about Lovelace’s Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee not performing its duties.
LRRI and the affiliated Lovelace Biomedical – which are not connected to Lovelace Health System – housed 885 animals, most of them dogs and monkeys, but also guinea pigs, ferrets, rabbits and pigs as of fiscal year 2016, according to a federal report.
And recently, the lab has come under fire for the percentage of its animals exposed to painful experiments without any type of sedation or pain relief – nearly three times the national average, according to 2016 reports filed with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Robert Rubin, president and CEO, declined requests for an interview.
However, he said in an emailed statement last week: “While we regret our role as the unknowing participant in Volkswagen’s scheme, we want to underscore our commitment to continuing to advance scientific knowledge on behalf of our many trusted research partners.”
In an earlier statement, he said: “The nonprofit Lovelace Respiratory Research Institute carefully considers every research project we take on, especially studies that would involve the use of animals, to ensure our organization’s ethical obligations are met.”
The diesel exhaust experiments at the Lovelace lab were conducted under a 2014 contract with the European Research Group on Environment and Health in the Transport Sector, or EUGT, which was funded by BMW, Daimler and Volkswagen.
The point was to look at “mild inflammatory responses” in the lungs of monkeys exposed to diesel exhaust from new vehicles compared to the technology found in older models, Jacob McDonald, the Lovelace scientist who oversaw the project, said in the deposition.
Initially, scientists considered doing the work on humans, but that raised liability issues because diesel exhaust had recently been classified as a carcinogen, he said. The industry group decided to use non-human primates instead, he said.
The deposition was taken last August as part of a lawsuit against Volkswagen.
The monkeys watched cartoons during hours of tests to help keep them calm. Afterward, they were anesthetized so scientists could “do a gentle brush of the side of the lung inside” to see if there was inflammation, McDonald said.
McDonald’s “chump” sentiment was prompted when the lawyer taking the deposition told him that the VW engineer with whom LRRI scientists had been working was now serving a prison term.
Once Lovelace realized there was “deception,” it refused to publish the resulting findings – although Volkswagen continued pushing the lab to do so by refusing to make its final payment under the contract, according to the deposition.
“Unbeknownst to LRRI, Volkswagen modified the engine in order to produce less pollution than it otherwise would have,” Rubin said in a statement. “When we learned of this deception, we determined the study was compromised. LRRI does not intend to publish this study, because we do not know the specifics of how the engine was rigged.”
As for what happened to the monkeys afterward, McDonald said he didn’t recall but thought it likely they were used in other laboratory studies.
“We do our best to minimize loss of animal life, especially primates, so in the event that we can re-use animals for as many times as possible, we’ll do that,” he said.
It was the way in which the experiment used animals as much as the Volkswagen deception that caused an uproar, from animal advocates to business officials to the government of Germany, where Volkswagen is based.
Lovelace, according to the statement from Rubin, is “committed to the humane and ethical treatment of animals involved in research.”
But the widespread use of animals, when there are new and more accurate methods of testing, has increasingly come under question from animal advocates and even from scientists.
“I was around non-human primates for many, many years,” said Gluck, who once directed a primate lab at UNM and about 20 years ago served a term on LRRI’s research review committee. “If you allow yourself to see who they are and how they operate and what matters to them and what hurts them … you get a very different perspective on your authority and what you are doing in influencing their lives.”
LRRI, a nonprofit, is registered with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and its work involving animals is done under the supervision of an attending veterinarian and the internal research committee, Rubin said in the statement. The lab prides itself on a long history of research that includes lung cancer detection and prevention, environmental inhalation hazards, therapies for chemical, biological and radiation exposures and preclinical studies and clinical trials of new drugs.
Lovelace Biomedical, according to its website, is located at Kirtland Air Force Base and has more than 100 acres of land and 30,000 square feet of lab space. The website also says the lab treats its animals in a humane and ethical manner and provides “for the psychological well-being and comfort of animals.”
However, it continues to rack up federal violations: among the most recent cited by federal inspectors were failure to treat skin problems in two 7-year-old beagles’ paws in December and failure to treat a painful mass on a 9-year-old beagle’s forelimb last April.
In October 2016, a federal report found that staff had failed to notify the veterinarian that a monkey had stopped eating. It was later found dead.
“It does seem they have a poor track record of violations of the Animal Welfare Act,” said Kathleen Conlee, vice president of Animal Research Issues for the Humane Society of the United States. “They have pretty serious violations compared to other facilities.”
The group SAEN – Stop Animal Exploitation Now – has long watched the Lovelace lab and filed a complaint last month with the USDA asking for enforcement action. Lovelace should be forced to pay the maximum fine: $10,000 per infraction/per animal, SAEN executive director Michael Budkie said in the complaint.
Budkie’s group also has publicized the fact that 25 percent of LRRI’s animals were used in research without use of “the appropriate anesthetic, analgesic or tranquilizing drug” because such pain relief would have affected the results of the study, according to the 2016 federal report. That compares to 8.7 percent nationwide.