Unauthorized Brucellosis Experiments, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Brucella sp
Brucella (Credit: CDC)

Professor of pathobiological sciences, Gary Splitter, DVM, PhD, was suspended from laboratory work above BSL-1 until 2013 because unauthorized work was conducted with an antibiotic-resistant strain of Brucella, a select agent, by his graduate student in 2007. The University was also fined $40,000 because this work broke federal regulations.  Brucella bacteria can cause the disease brucellosis, which presents as  a prolonged non-specific febrile illness in humans accompanied by chills, sweats, headache, fatigue, myalgias (muscle pain), arthralgias (joint pain), and anorexia.  The Wisconsin State Journal reports that Dr. Splitter, a member of UW-Madison’s Biosafety Committee, denies knowledge of his graduate student’s experiments – but email records indicate otherwise.  This unauthorized research is even more egregious because it was with an antibiotic-resistant select agent, making this research of dual use concern.  Dr. Splitter claims that the incident was the result of an understaffed biosafety committee and “The University of Wisconsin fail[ing] to provide the right education.”    Dr. Splitter, while culpable, may be right that this incident “… was a major meltdown by the university.”   Put together, the unauthorized work and a past case of brucellosis acquired in Dr. Splitter’s laboratory, indicate personal and systemic failures to educate laboratory personal about biosafety level procedures and regulations.    This incident highlights the need for continued efforts to educate students and scientists alike about research of concern and general laboratory biosafety.

0 thoughts on “Unauthorized Brucellosis Experiments, University of Wisconsin-Madison

  1. Sounds like he got what was coming to him. $40,000 seems to be a rather small fine given the possible outcomes of the situation, though. Which regulation was broken exactly, and was this considered a major violation or a minor one?

  2. By not registering a Select Agent, likely Brucella melitensis, the University was in violation of the “Agricultural Bioterrorism Protection Act of 2002: Possession, Use, and Transfer of Biological Agents and Toxins.” This has penalties of up to $500,000 for an organization and, for an individual, up to $250,000 and/or imprisonment for up to 5 years. The university was only fined $40,000, likely because they are implementing measures to ensure this will not happen in the future.

  3. Please give me a break! UW-Madison has all sorts of “safeguards” when you want to do any research involving human or animal studies, and endless loops to jump through to have to even contemplate any research. However, when it comes to other matters of biology (besides stem cells), the “safeguards/reviews” are very small if not entirely non-existent.

    The 4 hour seminar you take to use radioactive isotopes is hardly of any significance in really learning much about Radiation and handling it. Unless you are in a college class in chemistry and learn how to handle potentially explosive substances (if shocked or allowed to evaporate ie: THF, acetyl chloride+Zn+H20..ect), you are not given much in the way of instruction, hands-on experience, or “a real scare” about the potentially deadly/devastating/hazardous materials that you will be handling. It takes an explosion in the physics and/or chemistry building, & blocking off 5 blocks downtown in Madison for the Hazmat team every couple years, to make people remember exactly what they are dealing with/handling.

    I feel the fault is on the University since it has the funding/funds for all the experiments that are happening anyways, and if they are going to give money to allow experiments to that lab (it is all funny money anyways since the University controls it all), then they need to track the money: aka… review the experiments that are going on. I will bet that most labs get inspected once every 10-20 years… or maybe never in some instances.

    Add some grad students to the mix and anything is possible quite frankly! The UW is simple punishing Dr. Splitter for a failure on their part. But then again when has “politics” ever been FAIR…

    PS: I never even knew or heard of this professor before the article -so I am not biased.

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