Energy & Technology

Potential Conflicts Plague Animal-Testing Panel at Musk’s Brain-Chip Startup

Musk's Brain-Chip Startup

Elon Musk’s Neuralink brain-implant venture has come under scrutiny as allegations have been made that the company may have filled an animal-research oversight board with company insiders who may stand to benefit financially as the firm reaches development goals. The membership of the board at Neuralink raises questions about potential violations of conflict-of-interest regulations aimed at protecting research integrity, according to 12 animal-research and bioethics experts who spoke to Reuters. Details of the panel’s membership and its potential conflicts have not been previously reported.

As per federal law, oversight boards are required for organizations experimenting on certain types of animals. The panels are charged with ensuring proper animal care, high research standards, and the reliability of data that helps regulators decide whether drugs or medical devices are safe for human testing. Neuralink is conducting animal experiments as it seeks regulatory approval for human trials of a brain chip intended to help paralyzed people type with their minds, among other ambitious goals.

Insight into the board’s makeup comes in the wake of two federal investigations into potential animal-welfare violations by Neuralink and allegations that it improperly transported dangerous pathogens on implants removed from monkey brains. In December 2022, Reuters reported that some employees had grown concerned about the animal experiments being rushed under pressure from Musk to speed development, causing needless suffering and deaths of pigs, sheep, and monkeys.

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Neuralink’s review board is known as the “institutional animal care and use committee” (IACUC). The animal-research and bioethics experts have said it is rare for IACUCs to include employees with such direct financial stakes in the research outcome. Putting employees on such panels poses a particular problem at startups such as Neuralink because they tend to focus on a single breakthrough product and commonly reward employees with volatile company shares.

Neuralink originally partnered with the University of California, Davis, to help conduct and oversee its animal tests. But the company later ditched the university after a dispute, viewing the school’s processes as too slow and bureaucratic, according to one current and one former Neuralink staffer. Neuralink then brought the research and oversight in-house.

The U.S. National Institutes of Health is the world’s largest public funder of biomedical research. On projects it backs, the agency bars any IACUC member deriving income or stock from a research sponsor from reviewing or voting on that sponsor’s animal research. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is the lead agency enforcing animal-welfare regulations.

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