Johns Hopkins under fire for using animals in doctor training

A former state health secretary and a physicians group that supports animal rights are calling on the city prosecutor to investigate the Johns Hopkins University's School of Medicine, claiming it illegally uses live animals to train surgeons.

Martin Wasserman and his wife, Barbara, both physicians and both Hopkins alumni, and the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine say the practice violates the state's animal cruelty law.

"JHU regularly violates Maryland law by [causing] students to inflict unnecessary suffering or pain on an animal," said the letter sent Wednesday to State's Attorney Gregg Bernstein. "No statutory exemption allows JHU to subject animals to cruelty."

The group has targeted Hopkins for more than five years with letters, calls and protests. This is the first time it has invoked the law.

Hopkins officials have said in the past that the training on pigs is instrumental because it gives students the feel of live tissue and helps them decide whether they should become surgeons.

In a response to the latest salvo, university spokeswoman Audrey Huang said that the school is in compliance with all laws and institutional guidelines, and use of live animals is overseen by veterinarians.

"The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine reviews its mission, vision and values on a regular basis and strives to ensure the curriculum and training meet the highest standards and quality of medical education," said the response.

The physicians group says students work on their suture and knot-tying skills and practice surgical procedures on pigs, which are later euthanized, in their third- and fourth-year surgery rotation. They contend that Maryland law allows for animals to be used only in medical research but not in such training.

Hopkins is one of seven medical schools out of 176 accredited in the United States and Canada that use live animals — and the only one of the top 20 schools in the annual U.S. News & World Report ranking to do so.

Hopkins also relies on simulators, which have become the primary training tool at other schools, including the University of Maryland School of Medicine, where a simulator center opened in 2006. Dr. Stephen T. Bartlett, chairman of UM's department of surgery, said the computer technology has been effective because students can practice a procedure until they perfect it.

"They get to the point of mastery," said Bartlett, also chief of surgery at the University of Maryland Medical Center. "It's the right way to go. You can learn so much just by practicing on a computer without fear."

In the 1980s, medical schools largely switched from dogs to pigs because they were closer anatomically to humans and less likely to draw protests. Schools dropped use of the pigs in the past decade after students sued, said David Favre, professor of law at Michigan State University and editor-in-chief of Animal Legal & Historical Center, an online library for animal legal issues.

The suits were unsuccessful, but schools moved to the simulators as the technology developed. Technology has also largely supplanted animals in product testing, but medical researchers still use animals without facing many legal hurdles, Favre said. The federal Animal Welfare Act does not cover rodents, the most commonly used research animals, or address education.

Favre said after a review of Maryland law that the physicians group might have a legal case because the statute does not specifically exempt training that uses animals. But that doesn't mean the state's attorney will take up the matter or be successful in prosecuting the crime, a misdemeanor.

"There is already some visibility on animal abuse issues," Favre said, noting the recent spate of animal abuse cases in the Baltimore area and a high-profile trial of two teens accused of burning a dog. "Perhaps the publicity is enough to push the state's attorney, or to make [Hopkins] change?"

Mark R. Cheshire, a spokesman for the state's attorney's office, said Wednesday, "We received the request for an investigation earlier today. As with all such requests, we will carefully review it and determine how best to proceed."

The Wassermans, who both graduated in 1968 from Hopkins, said they joined the legal effort only after years of unsuccessfully lobbying the school to stop using animals.

"We feel that with Hopkins being a world-class institution, it should not be in the rear in teaching surgical skills by using techniques that the vast majority [of] medical schools have abandoned," Martin Wasserman said. "This is the right thing, forget about the legal thing."

Dr. John Pippin, a Dallas physician who serves as the physicians group's senior medical and research advisor, said the group is also pursuing an investigation of animal cruelty at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences School of Medicine in Bethesda.

The group is not pursuing criminal investigations of five schools in other states, most with similar animal cruelty laws, because "progress is being made," Pippin said. They are in Mississippi, Oregon, Tennessee, Virginia and Wisconsin.