Christian Newcomer, a prominent veterinarian and specialist in laboratory animal medicine, has been appointed The Johns Hopkins University's first associate provost for animal research and resources, responsible for universitywide planning and other issues relating to research using animal subjects.
Newcomer, who joined Johns Hopkins on May 21, had previously served for two years as director of the Veterinary Resources Program at the National Institutes of Health. He will help the university prepare for future changes in the availability of animals, animal care standards or the way in which animal research is conducted.
"There are just an incredible number of animal issues that come up in a big and vibrant animal research program like Johns Hopkins'," Newcomer said. "I will work to determine how we can keep a step ahead of where the science is going, and how we do that the right way."
Newcomer will serve as an adviser and frequent consultant to the university's Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee, a group that reviews and approves all animal research protocols to ensure that use of animal subjects is essential and that any pain or discomfort to animals is minimized, and that federal regulations and policies are met.
"Dr. Newcomer is so experienced in all of these areas that we will welcome him at our meetings and will be working with him very closely on a day-to-day basis on many of the issues that we're dealing with," said Nancy Ator, chair of the IACUC and professor of behavioral biology at the School of Medicine. "Establishing this new position at the university is a very positive step for our animal care and use program at Johns Hopkins, and one that really shows a commitment to long-term excellence."
In December 2000, the American Association for Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care International's review of Johns Hopkins' animal care programs found several concerns that led AAALAC to put the university's accreditation status on probation. In response, a committee of Johns Hopkins administrators headed by Ted Poehler, vice provost for research, took a variety of steps to increase attention and resources devoted to animal care, including creation of the new Provost's Office position filled by Newcomer. A March 2003 AAALAC inspection generated much more positive feedback.
Newcomer is off to a quick start, having already partnered in the submission of an application for a grant to characterize the genetically engineered mice produced and used at Johns Hopkins.
"Not only is it important to know what the anticipated characteristics of genetically altered mice are, it is important to uncover their latent traits that could be useful for other researchers," Newcomer said. "Also, collecting data on these animals aids in our determination of whether we've exhausted our scientific interest in a particular strain of mice for now or whether we need to keep breeding this particular line of mice for further research."
Newcomer is also interested in new research suggesting that the cage environments may alter the cognitive development, limit behavioral expression or provoke aberrant behaviors in some laboratory animals. He wants to begin looking for cost-effective ways to make cages more stimulating, such as by giving animals more opportunities to interact or by introducing new elements to the cage environment.
"We can't put them back in a naturalized environment, but we have to appreciate, at least with the larger animals, that it's important that they be in environments where they don't develop behavioral aberrations related to bland caging," Newcomer explained. "For mice, it could be as simple as putting a little tube in the cage so that they can run the corridors that they're naturally attuned to."
Even such small additions will mean added work to maintain the new enhancements, Newcomer noted. He emphasized that cost, benefits and feasibility issues will be carefully considered in the planning work that he does with research groups.
Newcomer earned his doctorate in veterinary medicine at the University of Pennsylvania in 1977. He has worked at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Tufts University and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. He served as president of the American College of Veterinary Medicine from 1996 to 1997 and has been a consultant for the American Association for Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care (now AAALAC International) since 1983.
"When we were conducting our search, we learned that faculty at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and Tufts University were very enthusiastic about working with Dr. Newcomer," Ator said. "Too often, there is an atmosphere of confrontation or being at odds with those who run animal care and use programs, and he does not carry any of that baggage with him."
Newcomer won't be concerned with just animals. He wants to look into ergonomic stresses on technicians responsible for daily care and oversight of animals. He hopes to develop resources to automate some of the tasks that sometimes put technicians at risk for carpal tunnel syndrome, tennis elbow or other repetitive motion injuries from moving and opening cages and other tasks.
"Anything you can do to address the need for extra people doing repetitive and sometimes mundane tasks is really beneficial, and the way to do that is to build improved facilities," Newcomer said.
Newcomer will oversee planning and development for all Johns Hopkins animal facilities, including those at the schools of Medicine (East Baltimore and Bayview), Public Health, Engineering and Arts and Sciences and at a farm owned by Johns Hopkins in northern Baltimore County.
Chi Dang, vice dean for research at the School of Medicine, said, "Chris will not only bring his expertise and authoritative view in overseeing animal research, but he will also integrate the management of our university's animal research infrastructure. There is a great need for a person with his background to take on the responsibility of ensuring that Hopkins has the best infrastructure for animal research and the foresight to plan for the future."
Ted Poehler added, "Dr. Newcomer will supply the overall leadership, planning and vision to get our animal program back into the first rank of institutions doing animal research and [will] keep us there."