Wisconsin researcher punished for unauthorized research on bioterror agent

Published 14 May 2010

A university of Wisconsin researchers conducted unauthorized research on bioterror agent; the researcher developed antibiotic-resistant variants of brucellosis and tested them on mice; the University of Wisconsin was fined $40,000 by the National Institutes of Health, and the professor was ordered to stay out of a lab for five years

The University of Wisconsin-Madison had ordered a veterinary researcher to stay out of a lab for five years after he performed research on a potential bioterrorism agent without receiving proper approval, the Wisconsin State Journal reported Tuesday.

Professor Gary Splitter failed to receive authorization from local or federal authorities before his laboratory no later than 2007 produced antibiotic-resistant variants of brucellosis and tested them on mice. The work was a “major action violation,” according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and earned the university a $40,000 penalty.

Brucellosis is a disease that generally infects livestock or other animals but can spread to humans through several means, including consumption of milk contaminated with the bacteria. Symptoms include fever, headache, and back pain and the disease can produce “severe infections” of the central nervous system or heart lining, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The disease is not among the agents most likely to be used in an act of bioterrorism, “in part because it results in a high morbidity, but low mortality,” according to a fact sheet from Saint Louis University. “However, it remains a threat because the disease process is long and incapacitating.”

An antibiotic-resistant version of the disease could be harder to treat than a more standard form, according to the newspaper.

Global Security Newswire reports that one laboratory staffer was infected with the disease, but it was not clear whether that was linked to the strain involved in Splitter’s work. The staffer apparently suffered no permanent effects.

These are extremely dangerous compounds,” according to university provost Paul DeLuca. “They are very highly regulated and we want to be in full compliance with federal laws.”

Splitter said that graduate students performed the research in question and that it had not been brought to his attention. Scientists have also not received adequate guidance from the university on work involving antibiotic-resistant forms of disease, he argued.

The University of Wisconsin failed to provide the right education,” he said. “The bottom line is that this wasn’t just an investigation of one individual. It was a major meltdown by the university.”

The university probe into the case, which began in 2008, uncovered information that indicated that Splitter was aware of the research, officials said.

In 2007 a scientist at the university was reported to have received approval to conduct Ebola research in a facility with a lower security level than mandated for that work. The research was ultimately relocated to a higher-security facility.

The university over the last twelve months has brought on a new biological safety director and five officers.


Splitter is due to receive laboratory privileges again in December 2013, five years after his work area was closed. “Gary Splitter is one terrific scientist,” DeLuca said. “He’s had an excellent career and done really excellent work, however that does not excuse doing experiments with select agents that are not approved.”