Lab Rats

UCSF's Stanley Prusiner is a Nobel laureate and superstar of medical research. But employees don't feel safe working for him.

Juan De La Torre remembers the night well. It was just about two months ago, and he was at home vomiting, quivering, and fighting a severe headache.

He had spent the day working at the Hunters Point Animal Facility, one of the laboratories run by Nobel Prize-winning medical researcher Stanley Prusiner at the University of California, San Francisco.

De La Torre's task that March 4 was to prepare mice for use by researchers in Prusiner's other labs. For six hours, De La Torre used a gas called Metofane to knock out hundreds of mice so they could be inoculated with a deadly disease.

The lab, De La Torre says, did not have the proper equipment to vent fumes from the anesthetic he was handling. There was little question in his mind that hours of inhaling the gas caused his night of retching and pain, and he said so in a letter he later sent to Prusiner and lab officials.

De La Torre, an eight-year veteran lab employee, called in sick the next day. Another lab worker refused to take over the job administering Metofane, also saying that the lab's ventilation system wasn't adequate to protect him from inhaling the sickening fumes.

"I honestly feel I would be jeopardizing my health and safety performing said duties," Ramon Agusto said in a signed statement regarding the incident.

De La Torre recovered, and as far as he knows suffered no permanent effects. But his illness is part of a disturbing pattern that is emerging from the lab run by one of UCSF's most famous, and most tempestuous, researchers.

Over the past few years, a chorus of fear and discontent has been rising from workers at the Hunters Point facility. Ten former and current employees interviewed by SF Weekly say they have not felt safe working in Prusiner's lab, and internal documents show a battle being waged between workers and managers over the lab's safety.

Lab managers, the employees say, have misled them about the true dangers of their work, failed to provide the proper equipment needed to protect their health and safety, allowed safety procedures to be violated, and downplayed instances where workers have been injured.

The lab is seldom visited by regulators from outside the university, except federal inspectors who are there to check on the well-being of the animals, not the employees. When employee complaints have been investigated, it has been by the university's own internal Environmental Health and Safety office, which has generally given the lab a clean bill of health.

Discontent with the lab management, and the university, has escalated into hard feelings among past and current employees, even prompting the workers to unionize three years ago.

Part of the fear stems from the very nature of Prusiner's research -- he studies diseases that basically eat holes in the brains of animals and people, such as the much-publicized Mad Cow disease.

Workers at the Hunters Point lab prepare animals -- usually mice -- for study at other labs by injecting them with various strains of disease. By definition, the research is being conducted because little is known about how the diseases act, how they spread, and whether there is any cure.

In recent years, at least two workers at the lab have been bitten by test animals, and another suffered a puncture wound and inhaled gas. Employees say infected mice have been poorly controlled, and in one instance blood was drawn from animals in an employee meeting room.

A growing number of people have publicly complained, signed petitions, filed grievances, or simply left. Three of the grievances have made their way out of the university and to the Public Employee Relations Board, a courtroom of sorts for labor issues involving state employees. The complaints range from nit-picking to serious allegations that the health and safety of laboratory employees are being jeopardized.

The lab's director, Dr. Marilyn Torchia, says the lab has absolutely no health and safety problems. None. She blames the union for stirring up workers and instigating false accusations to strengthen its bargaining position with the university.

Certainly, accidents can happen in any laboratory. And Prusiner is a scientist of unparalleled achievement, a man whose discoveries may well change medical science. There have been no complaints about the three other UCSF labs Prusiner runs.

But something has clearly gone awry at Hunters Point. At the least, the rancor and litany of complaints are not what you'd expect in a lab run by an eminent researcher with access to the full range of technical expertise and money that a Nobel Prize affords.

For 25 years, Stanley Prusiner, a professor of neurology and biochemistry, has been investigating a particular group of infectious diseases called transmissible spongiform encephalopathies. They attack the brain, and include Scrapie and Mad Cow disease in animals, and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans. The diseases are fatal, and the incubation period in humans can be as long as a decade.

Some years ago, Prusiner discovered that the diseases travel through something called prions (pronounced pree-ons), which are infectious proteins, and are not passed on through genetics. Prusiner was awarded the 1997 Nobel Prize in medicine for his discovery.

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