A group of physicians filed a formal complaint with the federal government alleging that University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus is violating parts of the Animal Welfare Act by using pigs to teach medical students surgical procedures.
The complaint, filed late last month, comes from the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C. Part of its mission is to advocate for changes in medical school curriculum that eliminate unethical animal research.
Dr. John Pippin, the committee’s director of academic affairs, led the effort to file a complaint. He said using animals to teach surgery is cruel and can lead to poor technique.
“Hardly anybody cares about the ethics of using pigs, in particular,” Pippin said. “If you don't care, then you should at least care if it's being done to have an inferior outcome to the outcome that would occur if you did not use these animals.”
Pippin said medical students operating on pigs could learn incorrect techniques because of the anatomy of the animal. For example, pigs have significantly thicker skin than humans and their blood vessels are located in different areas.
“There are just so many things that you have to learn all over again when you're taking care of patients, because you learn them on an animal species that is totally wrong,” Pippin said.
According to the complaint, CU Anschutz has approval to use up to 141 live pigs in two workshops for surgical techniques and biomedical device training. After performing procedures that involve removing their gallbladders or kidneys, the pigs are kept alive for up to eight weeks before they are put down.
Under the Animal Welfare Act, medical programs and research institutes are required to consider alternatives to research and educational procedures that may cause momentary or slight pain to animals. The Physicians Committee alleged that CU Anschutz and its animal use oversight committee ignored this requirement.
Some alternatives that Pippin proposed include using cadavers, or simulations, an already established method used at CU Anschutz.
In a statement emailed to CPR News, CU Anschutz officials said the surgical program is humane and complies with standards set by accreditation agencies, but wouldn’t comment further.
“Our programs are consistent with the highest standards of its peer institutions and the campus joins with the Association of American Medical Colleges in the belief that further restrictions on the use of animals in biomedical and behavioral research and education threatens progress in health care and disease prevention,” the statement reads.
Justin Marceau, a law professor specializing in animal law at the University of Denver, said pigs are normally used for research and scholarly purposes because their organs are roughly the same size of human organs. However, he noted that most surgical programs in the country have moved on from using animals in their curriculum.
“If you look now at the US News and World Report rankings for surgery programs in the U.S., of the top 15, 13 of them don't use any animals now and that is astonishing, ” Marceau said.
With the complaint formally lodged with the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, investigators are now obligated to make an unannounced visit to the Anschutz campus to explore the claims made by the Physicians Committee, Marceau said. However, according to Pippin, the process will likely be delayed due to coronavirus complications.
Marceau said USDA investigators can uphold the complaint if they find any violations of the Animal Welfare Act and may mandate that CU Anschutz make changes.