The Benefits of Animal Research

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This article was written by Liz Hodge.

Most of us like a great steak, but may not want to think about how it arrives on our plate. Similarly, we want medicines, vaccines, antibiotics, surgery and diagnostic tools when we’re sick, but we may not care to know how exactly these treatments make it into our hospitals and pharmacies. Well, chances are, scientists developed them with the help of laboratory animals. Nearly every medical breakthrough involves animal research. From antibiotics to blood transfusions, dialysis to organ transplantation, vaccinations to chemotherapy, bypass surgery and joint replacement, practically every drug, treatment, medical device, diagnostic tool or cure we have today was developed with the help of laboratory animals. Each day, dedicated scientists study animals to find new cures for diseases and conditions that are currently incurable.

Animal research

Discoveries and cures happen when scientists study diseases in living systems — first in animals and then in people. Scientists cannot simply plug a formula for cancer into a computer and test drugs’ effectiveness with computer modeling. Instead, the only way scientists can work toward real treatments is to examine how each genetically unique cancer behaves in a living animal system. This enables them to see which cancer treatments will work best for both people and animals, the latter of which get many of the same types of cancer as people.

An exciting example of animal research is happening now at the Masonic Cancer Center at the University of Minnesota. Doctors have developed a vaccine for a deadly brain cancer called glioblastoma multiforme. Glioblastoma is a terminal cancer that both people and dogs get. Even after surgery, radiation and chemotherapy, this aggressive brain tumor grows back rapidly to kill the person usually within one to two years, while dogs normally die within one month. Doctors recruit pet owners to enroll their dogs with brain cancer into a study. After removing the tumor from a dog’s brain during surgery, the doctors create a cancer vaccine using that dog’s unique tumor cells. They inject the dog with several rounds of vaccination and eventually the dog builds up immunity to the cancer. Their immune cells act like an army to kill the foreign invader, the brain tumor. This vaccine is extending dogs’ lives dramatically and many dogs become tumor-free. After perfecting the vaccines with dogs, doctors are now conducting a clinical trial with human brain cancer patients. These patients are also receiving personalized vaccines made from their own tumor cells and hopefully they will have the same life-extending results in people as they are having in the dogs. What the scientists are gleaning from this cancer research helps not only man’s best friend, but also may help human brain cancer patients facing a grim prognosis. One day in the near future, this immunological approach to treating cancer could replace standard treatment methods such as radiation and chemotherapy.

Animals are our allies in the war against cancer and other deadly diseases. Laboratory research with dogs and fish gave us insulin to treat diabetes. The polio vaccine was developed following research with mice and monkeys. Clams and rats helped researchers illuminate the power of the MRI. The HPV vaccine was developed with rabbits. People with Parkinson’s are benefiting from deep brain stimulation that was perfected with monkeys. Ferrets have been crucial in the development of the bird flu vaccine. Most recently, scientists discovered spinal cord regeneration techniques because of rodent models. That means some day in the foreseeable future, some paralyzed people may be able to get out of their wheelchairs.

What breakthroughs are next? Perhaps cures for diseases like breast cancer, AIDS, Alzheimer’s disease, Lou Gehrig’s disease, multiple sclerosis, arthritis, diabetes, cystic fibrosis, depression and glioblastoma are on the horizon. The cures we dream of will be possible because scientists are studying diseases in animals. Animal research is saving and extending both human and animal lives.

About the author: Liz Hodge is the Director of Media & Marketing Communications for the Foundation for Biomedical Research (FBR), the nation’s oldest and largest organization dedicated to improving human and veterinary health by promoting public understanding and support for humane and responsible animal research. A non-profit foundation, the FBR works to inform the news media, teachers, students and parents, pet owners and other groups about the essential need for lab animals in medical and scientific research and discovery.

About the Author

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  1. Wow – I didn’t realize so many medical breakthroughs depended on the use of animals in research. I assume there isn’t a reasonable alternative to animal research or scientists would be using it already. That said, if animals are the best models of human disease for use in the lab, then why are so many groups in opposition?

  2. That’s a good question Tim.

    Animals are the best models of human disease – they’re not perfect and often don’t model all aspects of a disease, but they always recapitulate a phenotype or signaling pathway that is relevant for the disease under study. If the models weren’t relevant, researchers wouldn’t be using them.

    I think some of the opposition is due to people being misinformed. Many people don’t realize that there are a number of federal and state laws, regulations and guidelines that scientists have to follow in order to use animals in research. See here:

    Animal Research: Animal Welfare vs. Animal Rights

  3. I enjoyed your comments on how people can decide to contribute their already sick pets to study disease; however, I disagree with your statement “[a]nimals are our allies in the war against cancer and other deadly diseases.”

    Let’s cut through the euphemisms: animals are subjected against their will to tests. It is not my intent to persuade the reader that animal testing is wrong; however, the rosy picture that the author paints about animal testing is an illusion and we as a society need to face the realities of what is going on behind closed doors to develop medicines.

    Animal tests often involve inducing disease in otherwise healthy animals or inbreeding/genetically engineering them to inherit a disease. The animals are usually “sacrificed” (killed) and their organs analyzed for various purposes including drug efficacy, distribution within the system, etc. Many trial drugs have terrible side-effects in which the animal suffers greatly and these chemicals obviously never make it to human trials. Further, the “LD50”, the dosage at which statistically will 50% of the animals administered that dosage will die, is determined on a variety of animal species, including mice, rats, monkeys, and dogs.

    If animals were truly our allies, we would be performing the same tests on ourselves, or we would modify the testing standards. In reality, research laboratories are reluctant to change their animal testing practices unless compelled and policed under law. As such, animals are our slaves in the war against cancer and other deadly diseases.

    Further, your analogy of food animals to laboratory animals is misguided. The welfare of food animals is subject to stricter standards than the laboratory animal. The Animal Welfare Act, as amended contains ambiguous language as to pain management and euthanasia, and the NRC’s Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals outlines procedures that are virtually impossible to enforce without the strictest of routine inspection and record-keeping systems. The medical research scientific literature, when read carefully in experimental content alone, could incriminate numerous academic and for-profit institutions for animal welfare violations, but these publications are overlooked due to the nature of the research: to cure human disease.

    The food animal industry, with some notable exceptions, is under intense scrutiny by the public and lawmakers: (1) mishandled animals can cause a public safety hazard through a variety of pathways; (2) poor animal husbandry and farm management leads to lower profits for farmers; (3) the USDA and FDA regularly monitor and set forth policies regarding the use of chemicals in animals to be used for the food industry; and (4) the Humane Slaughter Act (except the provision for slaughter under Kosher procedures) requires minimal pain and a quick death for animals destined for food. All of these points are either irrelevant to or are not applicable to laboratory animal specimens.

    Let’s not ignore the fact that countless animals have been subject to what would amount to torture if applied to humans and just accept that this is one of the ugly aspects of our struggle to survive.

  4. The sad truth is that many animals will have to be used for medical research because of a lack of a better alternative. Obviously, many animal welfare groups are opposed to the process since these animals are kept in small cages and are subjected to painful procedures. In my opinion, the Animal Welfare Institute has a fair policy on animal research that values the quality of life of the animals while still making medical research possible. I think it’s about compromise until another solution is found. I hope the medical community and the animal welfare community can work to achieve goals together!