Learning not to kill

By SARAH MCNAUGHT  |  February 28, 2008

“Computer-simulated experiments give the student the chance to control the experiment and repeat it until you understand,” says Aysha Akhtar, a third-year medical student at Eastern Virginia Medical School, in Norfolk, Virginia. “Animal labs are a one-shot deal.”

“Computer programs allow students to administer a wide range of medications in varying dosages,” adds Allen Goldberg, a researcher at the Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health and Hygiene.

“Knowledge doesn’t come from computers,” responds Kaminer. “A little kid is growing up and experiencing the world through touch and feel. If a kid only experiences a picture of a hammer and nail and then is asked to build a cabinet, that picture is not enough of a tool to know how to make that cabinet.”

Some of Kaminer’s counterparts at top medical schools disagree, however. Larry Mathers, head of Stanford Medical School’s department of anatomy and embryology, says that live animal labs are merely one way to reinforce what students learn in books.

“The administration of drugs and the observation of their effects are just as effectively observed using technology,” says Mathers, whose institution eliminated the use of live-animal labs several years ago.

Alternative methods of medical training are also less expensive than animal labs. According to PCRM’s Barnard, a single animal-lab course costs between $5000 and $6000 on average.

“There is no cost for [observing] surgery that is being performed anyway,” says Barnard. “And the cost of computer technology, which can be reused repeatedly, is much less than an animal used only once.”

But neither the financial argument nor the pressure from PCRM is enough to persuade Kaminer. “Yes, labs are expensive. Exercises have been cut down for financial reasons,” he admits; each of his labs uses 32 rabbits per semester, at a cost of several hundred dollars per animal.

Yet he remains convinced that when it comes to learning how the body works, there’s no substitute for demonstrating on live animals. Not only does he plan to continue the animal labs, but he wants to offer more in the future.

“Sixty percent of my students take the animal labs, and the majority of responses I get are laudatory,” he says. “I see no reason to change.”

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