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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.
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.