Lawmaker seeks AG opinion on whether dog research at Wayne State is humane

Detroit — A state lawmaker has sought the opinion of Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel as to whether cardiovascular research on dogs at Wayne State University is “humane,” officials confirmed Thursday.

State Rep. Matt Koleszar, D-Plymouth, made the request in a five-page letter.

“Despite having authority to regulate the use of animals in experiments for more than 40 years,” Koleszar wrote in the letter to Nessel, “the state has ignored its statutory mandate to oversee animal research facilities.”

Nessel’s spokeswoman Lynsey Mukomel said the request is “under review.”

Koleszar and State Sen. Dayna Polehanki, D-Livonia, also co-authored Thursday a letter to the National Institutes of Health, whose grants fund the experiments, to cut off the flow of money.

Both legislators joined dozens of protesters in Midtown Detroit, across the street from the Louis M. Elliman Clinical Research Building at Wayne State, where the research is conducted.

The protest was organized by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a nonprofit that advocated for alternatives to using animals in medical education and research.

Protesters say the experiments date back to 1991, and that 136 dogs have died through the lab’s work since 2009. They have not been able to track down earlier death records.

Wayne State spokesman Phillip Van Hulle said the university wouldn’t do interviews on the matter. But in a statement, the school said it views the research as worthwhile.

“Although use of animals other than mice or rats is uncommon at Wayne State, we do have one federally funded research project involving dogs that is working on new strategies for the treatment of congestive heart failure and hypertension,” the statement read..

“Heart disease is the number one killer in America, so the odds are this research is going to benefit your health or the lives of your loved ones.”

To commemorate the dogs who died, protesters lined up 136 dog beds — some blue, some pink, some purple — on East Canfield.

“In the Michigan Constitution, any experimentation is to be humane,” Koleszar said. “We question if what’s going on here is humane. So we’re awaiting that opinion.”

Polehanki questioned the scientific value of the experiments.

“These experiments have wasted about $15 million in taxpayer dollars and haven’t produced any treatments for patients,” Polehanki said.

“I would like Wayne State to put an end to this failed 31-year experiment,” Polehanki added. “It’s not that I’m against animal experimentation to help humans. But this experiment has produced not a single treatment for patients suffering from heart disease.”

The experiments, called “Blood Pressure Control During Exercise in Heart Failure,” are conducted by Professor Donal O’Leary, who did not return a request for comment. Wayne State’s website also lists O’Leary as director of cardiovascular research in its department of physiology.

Donal O'Leary

Wayne State’s two-page statement does not cite any breakthroughs obtained through the dog research.

“Often, science does not move at the pace we would like. Advances are made incrementally — and often painstakingly — over years,” Wayne State said. “Just as scientists haven’t given up on cancer research despite not finding a cure, we believe this cardiovascular research should continue.”

Ryan Merkley, a spokesman for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, said the treatment of dogs at the lab has been an issue for the group for more than a decade, dating back to 2011.

“Unfortunately, too many people in Detroit don’t know this is happening in their backyard, in the basement of this building, where the dogs get delivered and get experimented on,” Merkley said.

“We started looking into public universities around the country and what they were doing with dogs and experiments because it was in an area that interested us,” Merkley said, explaining how the group came to focus on the Wayne State lab.

When “a stack of documents” came in from Wayne State, Merkley said, “we couldn’t believe how troubling they were, how invasive they were.”

Fourth-year Wayne State medical student Heidi Gabe joins dozens of protesters outside of the Wayne State University Medical School, in Detroit on Thursday, March 31, 2022, calling for the end of heart failure experiments on dogs.

Merkley said the dogs are given two surgeries to implant devices in their chest and side. Some die in the process, or from complications from the surgeries, he said.

“They trigger these devices, and the dogs’ hearts are paced at two to three times their normal rate, and then they walk or run on treadmills,” Merkley said.

“What we would love to see is a program that would make sure that dogs and cats used in laboratory experiments in Michigan have an opportunity to be adopted afterwards,” said Molly Tamulevich, Michigan state director for the Humane Society of the United States.

“But really, we would love to see an end to all cruel experimentation,” Tamulevich said.

jdickson@detroitnews.com