UW resumes controversial use of live animals in surgical training

SEATTLE — Pushback against the controversial surgical training method is being reinstated at the University of Washington. And a longtime professor is calling it quits.

The University of Washington stopped using pigs in its surgical training five years ago. But it recently gave the medical school the green light to resume using live pigs for advanced training.

Critics say it's all about the grant money being used to fund the use of live pigs for surgical training.

Now a professor is calling foul.

Lisa Jones-Engel has devoted her life and her career to animals. So she joined the University of Washington's Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee to help in its mission to establish protocol for the use of animals in research.

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"As a scientist, I believe in the use of animals in research," said Dr. Jones-Engel, an anthropology professor. "But I also know that you get better science when you have the highest standards of welfare for these animals."

She accuses the UW and the committee of stepping away from that standard after a new grant came in that would allow the Medical School to once again use live pigs in surgical training.

"If there is an alternative to using animals," she said, "we have to acknowledge that and encourage the investigator to do that."

And for five years, the UW Medical School did just that, using simulators as well as cadavers, animal tissue and virtual reality. The live pigs are being used again, says the university, for more advanced surgical training.

"It's possibly illegal, a violation of the animal welfare act," said Dr. John Pippin, a member of the  Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, by Skype. "And it is certainly unethical and displays animal cruelty."

The Physicians Committee has filed a formal complaint with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

"Now because they have a new source of money, they want to add animals back into the training," said Pippin.

But the university says the simulated training doesn't compare to using live animals.

"For five years, they taught their residents without using live animals," Pippin said.

If that didn't work, he said, "then why did they do it? That's my question."

In a statement, the University of Washington says "these current (simulator training) models still have significant limitations for more advanced surgical training." Using live animals, they say "allows our physicians to become more proficient surgeons with better outcomes for our patients."

Dr. Jones-Engel says she believes the UW is failing in a critical mission.

"I do believe in science," she said. "I believe in the power of science. But I come from a background that says that if you're going to use animals in research, you are morally, ethically, scientifically obligated, mandated to do it in a way that is the very best that you can do. And we're not doing that here."

The people at the University of Washington insist they have worked with regulatory agencies to ensure they are complying with the law. And they say they will cooperate with any investigation.

But surgery training with live pigs has resumed.

As for Jones-Engel, after 17 years, spring quarter will be her last at the UW.

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