Animals Research at UBC

Animal Research Advances Human Health

Animal research has improved health, prevented disease and saved lives of both humans and animals. Life-changing therapies ranging from vaccines and cancer therapies to organ transplants have helped millions worldwide. Many human diseases, such as diabetes, cancer, and arthritis also exist in animals and corresponding veterinary treatments have been based on therapies for humans.

For a timeline illustrating the many medical advances achieved through animal research, visit

Vaccines vanquish disease
The development of vaccines is widely considered a major medical milestone, with animal research playing an essential role in creating these protective agents. [More...]

Some important human vaccines are:

Diphtheria vaccine – developed in the 1930s using guinea pigs, rabbits, horses and monkeys, the vaccine protects against a highly contagious and potentially life-threatening bacterial disease that was once a leading cause of child death.

Diphtheria is now rarely contracted in North America thanks to vaccination programs but is still a threat elsewhere in the world. There were large outbreaks in Russia in the 1990s.

Whooping cough vaccine – before the vaccine was developed in the 1940s, whooping cough, or pertussis, was a major cause of child death from this highly infectious disease. Mice and rabbits were used in researching the vaccine.

Polio vaccine - One of the most dreaded childhood diseases of the 20th century, polio crippled thousands of people, mostly young children. In the 1950s mice and monkeys were used to create a vaccine that has virtually ended polio outbreaks in the western world. The World Health Organization and others have launched a program to eliminate the disease worldwide.

German measles vaccine – In the 1960s, research using monkeys led to a vaccine for the disease, also known as rubella, that mainly affects children and unborn infants. As part of a rubella pandemic in 1964-65, there were an estimated 12.5 million U.S. cases leading to approximately 11,000 miscarriages. Among newborns, approximately 12,000 were born deaf, 3,500 were blind and 1,800 were mentally retarded. Thanks to immunization, Cuba declared the disease eliminated in the 1990s, and in 2004 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that rubella had been eliminated in the U.S.

Meningitis vaccine – In the 1990s, research using mice led to a vaccine for meningitis, an inflammation of protective membranes covering the brain and spinal cord. The Hib vaccine has reduced U.S. incidence of bacterial meningitis by approximately 90 per cent. The disease previously led to serious brain damage and death in young children.

Tuberculosis vaccine - A century ago, tuberculosis was a common cause of death. In 1943, scientists discovered that streptomycin completely suppressed TB in guinea pigs and the resulting vaccine has saved millions of lives. However, there is a resurgence of the disease, especially in countries such as South Africa where high rates of HIV infection are having a negative impact on immune systems. There is also a growing problem of multi-drug resistant TB.

Researchers are now developing what may be the first new vaccine for tuberculosis in 100 years, again using guinea pigs. The new vaccine promises to be more powerful than existing vaccines and safer for individuals whose immune systems are compromised.

About eight million new cases of active TB develop annually.

Canines and kidneys
Scientists developed Nobel Prize-winning kidney transplantation techniques using dogs and pigs. [More...]

In addition, researchers tested cyclosporine, extracted from a species of fungus, on mice and found it prevented organ rejection. Additional research on dogs revealed that cyclosporine with steroids produces a three-fold increase in survival time.

In Canada in 2009, there were more than 15,000 Canadians living with life-saving kidney transplants. The transplants saved the Canadian health-care system an estimated $800 million.

When new blood is needed
Dogs have been important in developing safe blood transfusions and blood storage techniques. [More...]

Blood transfusion saves the lives of both humans and animals. Successful techniques were first developed in 1914 when treated blood was shown to be safe for transfusion in dogs. Subsequent research developed methods to safely store blood, without clots forming. This advance let to the establishment of blood banks and to blood transfusion as a routine procedure.

A recent Canadian Blood Services poll showed 52 per cent of Canadians surveyed, or a member of their family, needed blood or blood products for surgery or for medical treatment. Blood transfusions are used in cancer treatment, coronary artery bypass, organ transplants and to replace blood lost in injuries sustained in car accidents.

Insulin innovations
In 1921 Canadian doctor Frederick Banting, along with student Charles Best, isolated insulin, a hormone that regulates blood sugar. [More...]

The researchers injected insulin into a diabetic dog and restored it to health. Additional studies in rabbits showed how to balance insulin doses and blood sugar to avoid insulin overdose. Animals were essential to the research because hormones are carried in blood and must be studied in a living system.

When patients received insulin in 1922 it marked the first treatment for Type 1 diabetes, until then a lethal disease. Characterized by little or no insulin because of pancreas defects, Type 1 diabetes is usually diagnosed in children and adolescents.

Banting and his supervisor, Professor John Macleod, won the Nobel Prize in 1923 for the discovery.

In 2009 1.7 million Canadians had diabetes, which can include complications such as heart disease, stroke and kidney disease.

Honing in on hormones
Scientists studied rats to learn how hormone changes can induce breast cancer. [More...]

The discovery linking hormones to cancer led to development of Tamoxifen, which blocks the growth of hormone-dependent breast cancers. The drug is also used in efforts to prevent breast cancer in high-risk women.

In studying Tamoxifen, researchers also found human tumour cell cultures responded to drugs, providing an alternative to using animals in some breast cancer research.

Another breast cancer treatment, Herceptin, was developed through research using rats and mice. An antibody treatment, Herceptin is used to reduce tumors in a type of breast cancer known as HER2-positive, where tumours overproduce the HER2 protein.

One in nine Canadian women are expected to develop breast cancer by age 90. Every week, an estimated 445 Canadian women will be diagnosed with breast cancer and 100 Canadian women will die of the disease. There is an 87 per cent five-year survival rate for female breast cancer, according to the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation.

Defying birth defects
Researchers studied guinea pigs to learn that folic acid, a B vitamin, helps prevent brain and spinal cord birth defects such as spina bifida. [More...]

Folic acid is found in orange juice, beans, green leafy vegetables, and fortified cereals and grains. A public education campaign about folic acid was launched in 1992 and has been instrumental in preventing thousands of such birth defects.

In Canada, about one in every 2,500 babies is born with some type of spina bifida.

Rodents and regeneration
Traumatic spinal cord injury leading to permanent paralysis was considered irreversible until the end of the 20th century. [More...]

Through research using rats and mice, scientists have discovered that spinal cord nerves can be repaired and regenerated. Scientists are exploring if techniques that reversed paralysis in rodents can be translated to humans.

Better breathing for preemies
Research using rabbits, sheep and cows has led to remedies for life-threatening breathing problems often experienced by premature infants. [More...]

Premature infants often have incomplete lung development. A missing substance is the fluid, or surfactant, that lubricates lung surfaces, allowing for easy lung movement. Scientists used rabbit pups to test replacement fluids, using a mixture made from adult rabbit lungs. In the 1980s human babies were treated with surfactants made from cows.

Also, scientists learned that lungs of premature lambs benefited from corticosteroids. Similar benefits were then found in infants born prematurely.

Premature birth and its complications cause about 25 per cent of newborn deaths, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Piglets prove bacteria to blame
Researchers used piglets to discover that gastritis, stomach and intestinal ulcers are caused by the bacterium Helicobacter pylori. [More...]

Until this Nobel Prize-winning discovery, it was believed stress caused these conditions. Thanks to this animal research, patient suffering is reduced significantly because ulcers can now be cured with a short-term course of drugs and antibiotics.

The gift of lithium
The benefits of lithium, a medicine commonly prescribed for depression and bipolar disorder, were discovered through research using rats and guinea pigs. [More...]

Bipolar disorder, once known as manic-depressive disorder, is characterized by dramatic mood swings including suicidal depression. Until 1949, when lithium’s beneficial effects were first seen in animals, there was no effective treatment for bipolar disorder. Today, individuals can lead more balanced and productive lives thanks to this medication.

The median age of onset for bipolar disorders is 25 years. In Canada the mortality rate among individuals with bipolar disorder is two to three times greater than that of the general population.

Source: Understanding Animal Research

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Animal Research

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