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Hopkins medical school criticized for using pigs as part of training

Using live pigs to train future doctors in surgery is unethical and unnecessary, members of a health and animal rights group said Thursday during a protest of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine says Hopkins is one of four schools around the country that still use animals in training.

About two dozen doctors and others held signs outside Johns Hopkins Hospital reading "Baltimore Deserves Better" and "End Animal Labs."

"I went to Columbia for medical school and we didn't use animals," said Dr. Michelle McMacken, a Baltimore native who now practices at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York. "It was a prerequisite of mine. I wanted to become a doctor to respect life."

The Physicians Committee polled 187 U.S. and Canadian medical schools and found three other schools that use animals: Rush Medical College in Chicago, the University of Mississippi School of Medicine in Jackson and the University of Tennessee Health Science Center College of Medicine in Chattanooga.

The group said other schools use cadavers and high-tech simulators. The University of Maryland School of Medicine, for example, opened a simulator center in 2006. Officials there have said it allows students to practice tying knots and other surgical procedures repeatedly until they succeed.

Hopkins uses simulators, but also offers an optional four-session surgical course that includes use of anesthetized swine to perform surgical procedures, a Hopkins spokeswoman said in a statement.

Spokeswoman Audrey Huang said the medical school complies with U.S. Department of Agriculture regulations and other institutional and governmental animal welfare guidelines.

"The use of live animals in medical teaching at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine is rigorously reviewed on a regular basis by the Johns Hopkins University institutional animal care and use committee," Huang said.

The protest isn't the first time the Physicians Committee has targeted Hopkins. Three years ago, the group asked state prosecutors to consider animal abuse charges against the medical school. Gregg Bernstein, the state's attorney for Baltimore, responded in a letter to the group saying that the debate was valid but criminal prosecution was unwarranted.

Nationally, several factors have led to changes in animal use at medical schools, according to David Favre, who edits the online library Animal Legal & Historical Center.

Favre, a law professor at Michigan State University, said schools largely switched from dogs to pigs in the 1980s because they were closer anatomically to humans and less likely to draw criticism.

When students began protesting 20 years later, many schools dropped animals altogether, he said. Drug makers and cosmetic companies also began moving away from animals in favor of cells grown in a lab, for example.

"The industry has been interested in this so long as the tests are judged reliable, as live animal testing is expensive, time-consuming and bad PR," Favre said. "This might happen in the next few years."

Medical schools that have stopped using animals have cited logistics, costs and better technology — but not generally ethics, according to Ryan Merkley, associate director of the Physicians Committee for research policy.

The group planned to give Hopkins a petition signed by 120 Maryland physicians asking the school to stop using animals.

One of them was Dr. Pradip Sahdev, a surgeon in Southern Maryland who said doctors can get a good education without harming animals. When he went to medical school in India in the 1970s, he said, the only animals used were frogs for physiology class. Even continuing education courses he's taken since then have used only cadavers or simulators.

"As a physician you have to have respect not just for human life," he said. "If you can teach surgeons compassion by operating on animals, I'd be surprised."

meredith.cohn@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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