Why Did Oklahoma State Cancel Anthrax Research Project?

Three years ago, Oklahoma State University, Stillwater, cut the ribbon on a brand new biosafety level 3 laboratory, a move the university hoped would position it to bring in more federal money for research on biodefense and infectious diseases. Now, the university's president has decided to turn away federal money for an anthrax research project involving primates, leaving OSU researchers confused, concerned, and angry.

Last month, faculty received an e-mail from university President Burns Hargis saying that the project would not go forward, despite winning funding from the National Institutes of Health and approval from the university's Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee, according to the Web site of The Oklahoman, which appears to have broken the story. The project was to be led by Shinichiro Kurosawa, a pathologist at Boston University who previously worked at OSU and continues to collaborate with researchers there. The Oklahoman reported that the project aimed to test anthrax vaccines and treatments on baboons (Kurosawa did not immediately return phone and e-mail messages seeking more details).

The university did not make Hargis or other administrators available to answer questions today, but said in a statement:

The OSU administration determined that this research was not in the best interest of the university. The testing of lethal pathogens on primates would be a new area for OSU that is outside our current research programs.

The wording differs slightly from a statement issued earlier in the week that described the proposed research as "controversial."

At first pass, the statements seem hard to reconcile with the university's sizeable investment in the new biosafety lab, where much of Kurosawa's research would have been conducted. In the blogosphere, much speculation has focused on the influence of animal rights activists at the university. A flap erupted earlier this year when Madeleine Pickens, the wife of OSU alum and mega-benefactor T. Boone Pickens, threatened to redirect a $5 million donation away from the OSU veterinary school because she objected to procedures for using dogs in surgical training for veterinary students. The school subsequently changed its policy, and now bans euthanasia of animals used in teaching labs. Students now practice surgical techniques at local spay and neuter clinics. ("No animal rights advocates were consulted in the process," according to the OSU statement.)

Either way, OSU researchers are feeling like they've been left in the dark. "The community of researchers here at OSU has not received any communication from the administration as to what exactly is going on," says Michael Davis, a veterinarian and physiologist at OSU, and a member of the animal use committee that approved the anthrax project. Davis notes that the Animal Welfare Act gives Hargis the authority to halt research that the committee has approved, but he says such a move is unprecedented in his 12 years at the university. Many faculty are concerned that certain types of research will be off limits in the future, but they're uncertain about what the administration now considers permissible, Davis says. "The goal posts have definitely shifted," he says. "The problem is we don't even know where they've gone."