Legal Beagles

Animal rights activists sue researcher

Dr. Michael Berens has already halted his controversial brain tumor research using beagle puppies, but he's not out of the doghouse yet.

Animal rights activists have sued Berens in federal court in California, accusing him of repeatedly submitting inaccurate information to the National Institutes of Health to obtain his research grants. If the suit is successful, Berens and his co-defendants could be ordered to pay $2.1 million -- triple the amount of his grants.

"He's been doing these experiments for years with minimal success," said David Blatte, the plaintiffs' Berkeley-based attorney. "Yet he made statements [to the NIH] that suggested he has had great success."

A respected research scientist, Berens has struggled for years to develop a replicable model for studying brain tumors ("Screwing the Pooch," James Hibberd, January 4). As part of his research project, puppies were injected with cancer cells in utero in hopes they would develop a brain tumor. Berens was criticized for euthanizing healthy dogs that did not develop cancer.

In 1999, the Arizona State University animal research oversight committee told Berens to remove his test animals from their kennels because of his lack of progress. Federal funding for Berens' project ceased in April.

The suit was filed by Valley animal activist Patricia Haight and the California-based organization In Defense of Animals. Also named in the suit are Berens' employer, Barrow Neurological Institute, as well as St. Joseph's Hospital and owners Catholic Healthcare West.

"Patricia Haight has employed many tactics in her effort to stop Dr. Michael Berens' important research on the most deadly form of brain tumors," said Jane Wilson, spokesperson for the defendants. "We have invited all appropriate agencies into our facility and they have all been satisfied that we conduct our research in accordance with scientific protocols and the law."

Haight, a psychologist with animal research experience, claims progress reports submitted to the ASU oversight committee show Berens produced only three tumors from 1990 to 1999. Yet in a 1999 article allegedly submitted to the NIH, he wrote, ". . . seven litters harbored dogs who eventually developed glial tumors. The most successful procedure was a litter wherein four of five litter mates sustained allogeneic tumor growth."

Wilson declined to comment on the specifics of the suit.

The False Claims Act allows a public party with evidence of federal fraud to file a lawsuit on behalf of the government and receive 15 percent to 30 percent of any recovered money. The Department of Justice had a 60-day option to take over the Berens suit from the plaintiffs, but didn't.

 
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