Wake Forest, UCLA joint research venture dispute

Feb. 23, 2013 @ 01:07 PM

WINSTON-SALEM — Wake Forest University Health Sciences and the University of California at Los Angeles are embroiled in a dispute over a primate colony in southern Forsyth County.

The Winston-Salem Journal reports (http://bit.ly/13d4Rkv) that the Wake Forest group is suing to end a joint venture with UCLA involving the research center. UCLA accuses Wake Forest of financially mismanaging the center.

Wake Forest filed its lawsuit Dec. 7 in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina.

The colony contains 475 vervet monkeys, many of which came from the Caribbean island of St. Kitts. They contain family trees that have been tracked for eight generations by researchers.

The Wake Forest group says it's willing to close the center if UCLA doesn't agree to continue to pay half of the operating costs. Wake Forest paid $2 million to build the center.

In a counter lawsuit filed nearly two weeks ago, UCLA wants the court to declare the joint venture as terminated because of material breach by Wake Forest, and not because it withheld financial contributions.

Chad Campbell, a Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center spokesman, said Friday the lawsuit "is a contractual dispute."

"We hope that it will be resolved in a speedy and favorable fashion. As with any ongoing litigation, we cannot comment further pending its resolution," Campbell said.

The primate center is based on a 200-acre farm and had a workforce of about 80 employees, including 12 veterinarians, down 20 employees from when it opened in 2008. It has an average population of 800 monkeys.

Wake Forest researchers said the monkeys are becoming increasingly important in research on cardiovascular and metabolic disorders, aging, cancer, learning and cognition, substance abuse, vulnerability to mental disorders, reproductive medicine and infectious diseases.

The center has been the subject of controversies, including protests by animal-rights groups about the kinds of research being conducted there, and the escape of an eight-pound monkey from the center for nearly two weeks in July.

In August, the U.S. Agriculture Department cited Wake Forest Baptist, alleging a violation of the Animal Welfare Act because of the escaped monkey. Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center is appealing the decision, a department spokesman said.

Wake Forest said it "cannot afford to operate and maintain the colony at its current size," in part because projected additional funding and grants from outside sources have not been obtained. It claims it has not been able to pursue potential revenue streams because UCLA has objected to some research studies. The lawsuit doesn't say what UCLA's concerns were. Wake Forest said the proposed research would not have hurt the monkeys.

UCLA denied the restricted research claim and denied that its decision to withhold payment is affecting Wake Forest's ability to run the colony.