Do medical-school students have a problem with experimenting on rats? One group hopes so. 

Animal Rescue

Medical students at Virginia Commonwealth University's Medical College of Virginia Hospitals could soon be barraged with information warning them of the evils of live-animal labs.

To date, there are at least 32 medical schools across the United States that use live animals — dogs, pigs, rabbits and rats — to show students how living organisms work. But critics of the labs say they are unethical, outdated and potentially harmful for the students they are supposed to help.

MCV, which uses rats in physiology labs, is one of the latest medical schools to be targeted by Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, an activist group with strong ties to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Notorious for its media-seeking hype — think PETA — PCRM maintains that controversy is escalating over live-animal labs.

The group aims to catch medical students now, during the spring semester, before they sign up for fall labs, and to ask them to protest the labs, contact their instructors and, basically, lead a crusade to terminate the rat labs.

The group says it may send one of its physicians to MCV's campus soon, to pass out its literature, give demonstrations and convince students to protest.

PCRM contends animal labs are archaic, inhumane and "send the wrong message to our future healers," says Kathryn Kuhn, a research coordinator with the Washington, D.C.-based group. Kuhn acknowledges PCRM doesn't keep estimates on how many animals are killed each year in live-animal labs.

Still, PCRM reports that of the 126 accredited medical schools in the United States, 92 of them, or 73 percent, have halted live-animal labs. These include the 10 top-ranked medical schools.

PCRM says it's time for MCV to do the same.

"If it's good enough for Harvard, Yale, Duke, Stanford, Johns Hopkins and others, it should be good enough for MCV," says Dr. Murry Cohen, a physician in Northern Virginia and an advocate for PCRM.

PCRM's campaign began 15 years ago when most medical schools in the United States used live-animal labs to instruct students. In a typical live-animal laboratory exercise, medical students observe the effects of various drugs on an anesthetized dog — or other animal — and then kill the animal.

But in recent years, most schools — including MCV — have eliminated dog labs for more modern, humane teaching methods.

"MCV stopped [the animal labs] for a year or two," says Kuhn. In fact, the school had been taken off PCRM's target list. But last year, Kuhn says, an MCV student contacted PCRM to report that live-animal labs were once again part of the curriculum. This time MCV is using rats instead of dogs.

Kuhn says MCV's lab may be a first. "I don't know of any other rat labs" being used for student instruction, notes Kuhn.

While some view the move from dogs to rats as progress and an effort to become more humane, PCRM supporters say sacrificing any animal for educational purposes is nothing short of depraved.

Cohen, one of PCRMS's most outspoken supporters, puts the group's philosophy this way: "Killing leads to killing leads to killing." It doesn't matter that the animal involved is a rat and not a dog, he adds: "There are no degrees of difference. It's taking a life and it desensitizes students when they participate."

Moreover, Cohen says, computer programs can simulate the labs just as effectively; those programs could be combined with more student observation of actual human physiology in clinics.

Cohen says he wrote a letter last July to the head of MCV's department of physiology and requested an opportunity to discuss the medical school's use of live-animal labs rather than computer-simulated ones. He says he never received a response.

A spokesman for MCV/VCU said none of MCV's physiology faculty was available for comment.

But a spokeswoman for the Foundation for Biomedical Research in Washington, D.C., is eager to offer another perspective on PCRM and just who and what it represents. Some students, she says, may be surprised.

Founded in 1985, PCRM has a Web site that boasts of 100,000 lay members — and only 5,000 physicians. "It is not an association of physicians," stresses the spokesperson, who says she fears that using her name might mean retaliation by PCRM.

The biomedical research foundation and PCRM, which supports a total ban on animal research, "are pretty much diametrically opposed," says the spokeswoman. She observes that most medical groups conclude that some animal testing is necessary.

The Foundation for Biomedical Research, while encouraging the use of alternatives to live-animal labs, supports what the medical community recommends, especially the American Medical Association.

In the case of medical schools that use live-animal labs this means applying the "three R's": refinement, replacement and reduction. In other words, those administering the labs should make animals as comfortable as possible, use alternatives to animal testing when they can produce the same results and reduce the number of animals in experimentation.

The Foundation for Biomedical Research works closely with MCV, its spokeswoman notes, and has no concerns about the medical school's use of live-animal labs.

Still, she concedes that animal experimentation is hardly a "static issue" that distills right from wrong.

"Bioethics should be looked at very carefully," the spokeswoman acknowledges. "We are both animal advocates and researchers. But if animals offer us a way to find a cure for cancer or AIDS, we'll keep using them in labs."


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