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Federal officials have sent a formal warning to University of Utah medical laboratories for violating rules on reviewing experiments involving animals.

The Oct. 10, 2011, warning letter from the U.S. Department of Agriculture refers to "repeated failure" by the U.'s Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) to adequately oversee lab experiments by U. researchers at the U.'s Office of Comparative Medicine.

The brief letter, sent by the USDA office in Fort Collins, Colo., puts the Salt Lake City-based university on notice that further violations "may result in the assessment of a civil penalty or criminal prosecution."

U. officials involved with animal welfare and experiment approval said they were treating the warning "very seriously." The violations, they said, stemmed from incidents where research scientists or U. veterinarians altered experiments but failed to notify the review committee of those changes.

"We've had PIs [primary investigators] who have made minor changes but they've neglected to tell us," said Jack Taylor, a veterinarian and U. director of animal resources. The warning letter, he said, will result in additional staff education on filing reports on altered experiments.

The U. has drawn harsh criticism in recent years from animal-rights activists, including People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, and on Tuesday, the Virginia-based group heralded the USDA's warning as vindication of its claims the university is neglects lab animals.

"Thousands of animals are at the mercy of this university," said Kathy Guillermo, PETA vice president of laboratory investigations, "and the penalties for continuing to mistreat them should be severe."

An official with the USDA said the warning signals "a closed case" rather than any pending action. But USDA spokesman Dave Sacks said the U. would face tough sanctions if similar violations crop up in future unannounced visits labs by USDA veterinary inspectors.

The IACUC is a standing, 15-member group that reviews all experiments involving animals before they are performed.

In a Jan. 29, 2010, report, USDA inspectors noted two instances where U. researchers changed protocol for handling animals but did not inform the committee. In one case, the panel approved experimental surgery on one eye of rabbits, but USDA inspectors found it was being done on both eyes, possibly increasing the rabbits' pain and stress levels.

Steven Dickman, office director for U.'s IACUC, said researchers indeed departed from protocol because the procedure, akin to minor cataract surgery, was frequently performed on both eyes in humans. The change also halved the number of rabbits used in the experiment, he said.

In another case, calves used in heart surgery research were kept tied up for days but not given treadmill exercise as described in the IACUC approved protocol. Taylor said the U.'s own veterinary inspectors determined that moving the calves threatened to dislodge a series of catheters in their bodies, jeopardizing the experiment and the cows' lives. But that change in protocol was not reported to the review committee, he said.