Technology replaces live animals in medical training

  • Wednesday, November 9, 2016 9:46am
  • Opinion

Washington University medical school is weaning itself off the use of cats in medical training after concluding that technological advances in simulators and mannequins reduced the need to use live animals. The transition is a responsible one we can support.

The school resisted years of pressure from animals rights groups to use alternative teaching methods and was the last in the country to use animals to train new doctors how to insert breathing tubes. The reason for not changing the training was medically defensible, and patients should appreciate that the university did not cave in to bullying tactics by animal protectionists.

Dr. Bo Kennedy, a pediatric emergency specialist with St. Louis Children’s Hospital, has said that the anatomy of a cat’s windpipe most closely mimicked that of a newborn infant. Using cats provided the best training ground for medical students.

Any parent who has anxiously waited while a doctor safely inserted a life-saving breathing tube into a newborn’s delicate airway understands the importance of that training.

Hostile campaigns by animal rights groups have tried shaming doctors into using less-effective, alternative training methods. The right time to start such a transition is when technological advances permit doctors to simulate medical procedures as precisely as possible using mannequins instead of animals.

Intimidation and threats by some animal ethics groups caused some medical schools to lie when answering questions about their teaching methods. The groups often portray scientists and doctors as sadistically using animals in teaching and research labs, but oversight agencies such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture have not found those portrayals to be accurate.

Scientific advances and medical training that benefit humans no longer have to come at the expense of animals, and animal experimentation should be avoided whenever possible in favor of alternative research strategies.

Most non-human scientific and medical research uses less complex animals, such as rats and mice, which tend not to generate the same levels of protest as procedures involving animals that humans empathize with. Primate research, which is highly controversial, now accounts for less than a half of 1 percent of animal research. It has, nevertheless, led to life-changing medical advances for serious public health challenges such as a treatment for deep brain stimulation in Parkinson’s disease.

Safeguards and oversight that ensure animals receive humane treatment in laboratory settings help ease the moral dilemma. Washington University said cats in its training lab will be adopted by medical school employees and that no cats have been injured since the lab opened in 1988.

As public awareness increases, and technological developments lead to more lifelike mannequins and simulation devices, the use of live animals almost certainly will decrease. Federal ethical guidelines for the use of humans in research were developed only in 1974. Similar guidelines on animals are long overdue.

— The St. Louis Post-Dispatch,

Oct. 18

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