The news release from Johns Hopkins was filled with technical medical terms: transforming growth factor beta, and angiogenesis, and cell receptor type 2. Pathways, and non-muscle cells, and hypertrophy. Didn’t understand a word.
But I kept reading, trying to make some sense of it, because of the headline: “Animal studies reveal new route to treating heart disease.”
Heart disease has hit my husband’s family, so anything that talks about new finds catches my eye. But the research also captured my attention because of the explanation of the animal research that could ultimately lead to new treatments for heart failure or other kinds of heart disease.
Animal research ignites controversy among activists like members of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, who charge that we don’t conduct testing on unwilling people, so we need to extend this same concern to other living beings.
I disagree. We all are spared the risks and devastation caused by polio because of vaccine experiments on animals. My friend Dianne and many others live rich lives with a pacemaker because the machine was perfected on animals. Without animal research (mostly rats and mice), we wouldn’t have cures or treatments for other diseases like cystic fibrosis, malaria or muscular dystrophy.
Researchers are also stimulating cartilage regeneration in animals’ joints — meaning they’ve successfully rebuilt a complete shoulder joint using the patient’s own cells. Think about it: Rather than replacing my hip with a metal or ceramic implant, doctors could grow that joint biologically from my own cells.
My dad has Parkinson’s disease. It occurs when brain cells that make a chemical called dopamine waste away. Without dopamine, the brain loses its ability to send messages through the body to control how muscles function. We’re fortunate. Dad’s Parkinson’s manifests itself primarily in hand tremors, which make buttoning a shirt a challenge, but otherwise, he’s a healthy 82-year-old.
A Wisconsin researcher who has dedicated her life to researching Parkinson’s recently discovered that pioglitazone, a well-known treatment for Type II diabetes, could help prevent the loss of dopamine-producing cells. She made this discovery through research with the rhesus monkey. Her work may not help Dad, but since the risk for Parkinson’s is now greater in my family, it could ultimately help me or my children or their grandchildren.
It’s not just humans who are helped by animal research, either.
Understanding a disease in one type of animal can benefit all animals, as well as humans who share that disease. It’s a concept called “one health, one medicine.”
For example, naturally occurring osteosarcoma, or bone cancer, in dogs shares many features of the cancer in people. Timothy Stein, a veterinarian scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is studying bone cancer in dogs, but, he says, “the ultimate goal is to benefit both dogs and humans.”
So those who would decry animal research of any kind are actually hurting future care, health, and treatment of the very animals they proclaim to protect.
It works both ways. A UCLA cardiologist who performs ultrasounds on human hearts as her “day job” gets called examine zoo animals with the same technology.
“We can benefit animals by applying our understanding of human disease to the treatment of animal disease,” explains UCLA Vice Chancellor James Economou.
It’s simple: Animal research saves human and animal lives.