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US lawmakers seek probe of how Elon Musk's brain chip venture oversees animal experiments

FILE PHOTO: Illustration shows Neuralink logo and Elon Musk photo

By Rachael Levy

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. lawmakers will ask regulators to investigate whether the make-up of a panel overseeing animal testing at Elon Musk's brain-chip startup Neuralink contributed to botched and rushed experiments.

U.S. House Representatives Earl Francis Blumenauer and Adam Schiff, both Democrats, have signed a draft letter to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) requesting a probe into how Neuralink oversaw its experiments, Blumenauer's office said.

The lawmakers have shared the draft with peers to gather more signatures and plan to send it to the USDA on Monday. The draft states that they are responding to a May 4 Reuters story which revealed that Neuralink filled its oversight board with company employees who stand to benefit financially from the start-up securing regulatory approval for its novel brain chip.

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The panel approved experiments that resulted in the unnecessary deaths and suffering of animals, Reuters showed in a Dec. 5 story. A spokesperson for Blumenauer said the USDA did not respond to an earlier request from lawmakers for a probe into Neuralink in the wake of that story.

"Congress has a significant interest in ensuring that all facilities using animals in research and testing - whether they are government-run, universities, or private companies - comply with the minimal standards of the Animal Welfare Act," the draft letter states.

Musk and Neuralink representatives, and spokespeople for the USDA and the agency’s inspector general, did not respond to requests for comment.

Neuralink has already been the subject of federal probes. Reuters reported on Dec. 5 that the USDA's Inspector General was investigating, at the request of a federal prosecutor, potential violations of the Animal Welfare Act, which governs how researchers treat and test certain types of animals. This probe has also been looking at the USDA's oversight of Neuralink.

The Inspector General and the USDA did not respond to a request for comment on the progress of that investigation.

The U.S. Department of Transportation said in February it was investigating Neuralink over the movement of hazardous pathogens. An agency spokesperson said this probe is continuing, without providing details.

USDA inspectors visited Neuralink's California and Texas facilities in January in response to Reuters' reporting and the queries of lawmakers, but found no issues, Reuters reported last week.

Neuralink has been trying to secure clearance to advance to human trials after a prior attempt was rejected last year by the Food and Drug Administration because of safety concerns.

(Reporting by Rachael Levy in Washington, D.C.; Editing by Stephen Coates)