Advertise in Print | Subscriptions
Published April 16, 2009, 12:00 AM

Medical training with pigs questioned

Group asks NDSU to not OK practiceA nonprofit trying to stop MeritCare from using live pigs in its trauma training plans to ask North Dakota State University to stop approving the practice.

By: Dave Roepke, INFORUM

A nonprofit trying to stop MeritCare from using live pigs in its trauma training plans to ask North Dakota State University to stop approving the practice.

The Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee at NDSU signs off on using live, sedated pigs in classes teaching doctors life-saving emergency techniques.

In doing so, the school’s IACUC – a local regulatory body required at research institutions where animal research is conducted – has ignored more reliable methods that don’t involve killing animals, said Dr. John Pippin, senior medical and research adviser for the nonprofit group Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.

“We were, frankly, shocked,” Pippin said.

As it did in a complaint it filed in January with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group maintains in a letter it sent to NDSU on Wednesday that using pigs in the training program – which is run by MeritCare but requires an IACUC to OK using animals – violates the federal Animal Welfare Act because there are equivalent non-animal alternatives.

MeritCare spokeswoman Kaycee Stenger said using pigs in the trauma training is legal and allowed by the American College of Surgeons, which oversees and develops the course of standard emergency life-saving procedures.

Use of animals in the course, called Advanced Trauma Life Support, is at the discretion of the instructor and the institution where it’s taught, Sally Garneski, a spokeswoman for the American College of Surgeons, said in an e-mail.

An NDSU official said Wednesday afternoon the ATLS program is using the medical community’s accepted standard protocol.

NDSU Vice President for Research, Creative Activities and Technology Transfer Philip Boudjouk said that when the university was approached by MeritCare in 2006, a university committee explored options for the ATLS program and using live pigs was acceptable at the time.

However, he added, such protocols are annually reviewed and if there is a viable alternative, Boudjouk said he’d explore the option.

Of the 202 facilities in the U.S. and Canada the physicians committee has surveyed, only 14 use animals in their ATLS programs, Pippin wrote in the NDSU letter. PCRM, which promotes vegetarian diets and opposes animal research, is also pushing the other 13 institutions to switch to nonanimal alternatives such as human simulators or cadavers, he said.

“The current standard of practice is clearly not to use animals,” Pippin said.

Under the Animal Welfare Act, the IACUC has to file an explanation of why alternatives to using animals aren’t available. The letter quotes a snippet of that justification, saying live pigs “give the medical personnel the correct ‘feel’ of real tissues.”

PCRM takes issue with the studies cited by NDSU as evidence of the need to use pigs. Pippin said of the four articles cited, all were published in 1996 or before.

Yet human simulators like the TraumaMan System weren’t even approved for use by the American College of Surgeons until 2001, Pippin said, and some studies since have found simulators and cadavers to be more effective.

“When they’re taught using pigs, the anatomy is all wrong,” said Pippin, a cardiologist.

Pigs used in the training are sedated for most of the course, Pippin said, and euthanized before the final procedure on the throat.

PCRM has not filed any official complaint, Pippin said, and is instead hoping to urge NDSU to pull its support of animal use in the ATLS courses by “rattling their cage a little bit.”

The letter urges ending the use of pigs before the next two-day training program, which is held on the NDSU campus and scheduled to begin April 27.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Roepke at (701) 241-5535