Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine has abandoned the use of live pigs to train students, joining all but one other U.S. medical school in forgoing a practice that's long been criticized by animal rights activists who consider it unnecessary in the age of computer simulation.
While Johns Hopkins officials maintained that the four-session surgical training course that used anesthetized swine was popular among third- and fourth-year students, they said it was no longer essential to train "the best doctors in the world."
"The latest task force to examine the pros and the cons and the ethics decided that the bar has to be pretty high to justify doing this," said Audrey Huang, a Johns Hopkins spokeswoman. "While students were huge fans of the course, it felt like it wasn't absolutely necessary."
The move, which was announced Wednesday, leaves the University of Tennessee Health Science Center's College of Medicine in Chattanooga as the last holdout among medical schools in the United States and Canada, according to the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, an animal rights group that has waged a decade-long battle to stop the use of animals in training.
Johns Hopkins officials have said in the past that the medical school complied with U.S. Department of Agriculture regulations and other institutional and governmental animal welfare guidelines, and that officials periodically took an in-depth look at the use of animals.
Nonetheless, the physicians committee has orchestrated many events in opposition to the use of animals over the years, bringing lines of picketers as well as petitions signed by doctors inside and outside the medical institution. The group even sought unsuccessfully to have Johns Hopkins investigated by the Baltimore City prosecutors for violating the state's animal cruelty laws.
The group also backed legislation introduced this year in the Maryland General Assembly aimed at ending the practice. The bill targeting Johns Hopkins died in committee after a hearing where the university faced tough questioning but defended the practice.
The bill sponsor, Democrat Shane Robinson, said he didn't intend to put one of the more prestigious medical schools in the country in a negative light, but said he thought it was necessary to spark renewed debate at the university on the practice.
Even though, he acknowledged, Johns Hopkins wasn't using a large number of pigs anymore, Robinson, a vegan, said animals rights were important to him and lots of people in the state. He noted that the University of Maryland and the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, a military medical school in Bethesda, in addition to other top-ranking schools nationwide, had moved to surgical simulators and other technology years ago.
The University of Maryland School of Medicine opened a simulator center in 2006 and officials there have said it allows students to practice tying knots and other surgical procedures repeatedly until they succeed. The military medical school stopped using animals in 2013.
"I don't think it's a good practice normally to legislate curriculum, but when you have cases where there are such extreme outliers, like only two institutions still using this, it makes sense to step in," Robinson said. "I think it's unnecessary, unethical and kind of wasteful when Johns Hopkins has the top technology available."
The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine cheered the move, and will turn its attention now to Tennessee.
Dr. John J. Pippin, director of academic affairs for the physicians committee, said medical schools have been dialing down their animal programs, which once commonly involved dogs.
Johns Hopkins had whittled down the courses using pigs to one optional course. But at an elite institution like Johns Hopkins, Pippin said students might feel pressure to partake in any course suggested by professors. And the institution itself might be resistant to change because clearly the system was producing top-notch doctors.
The practice, however, couldn't be defended as essential if it was classified as optional, he said.
"If they were passing students without the course and they were becoming good physicians without using animals, it would be hard to say it's essential," Pippin said. "Every other elite medical school also has stopped using animals."
Pippin said when the group launched its effort to stop the use of animals in training doctors 10 years ago, there were 30 medical schools still using live animals out of 197 polled in the United States and Canada.
He said it would take many more years to get animals out of research, which remains required by federal authorities who oversee drug approvals. Most drug trials fail on humans despite success in animals, an untenable situation for researchers and pharmaceutical companies that invest billions in the studies, he said.
Researchers are investigating other means of testing such as using simulators and lab-grown human cells.
"That process will be a bit slower because in research into human disease animals are much more deeply entrenched and the issue more nuanced," Pippin said. "The limitations are being recognized, but until the FDA gets to the point where they will allow pharmaceutical companies other ways to do it, there will be no option."