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Feature: How animal studies contributed to biomedical breakthroughs in 2022

Ahead of this year’s Be Open About Animal Research Day (#BOARD23), on 15 June, which highlights how the biomedical research community talks openly about its use of animals, EARA communications manager, Bob Tolliday, looks back at the remarkable contribution animal studies have made to scientific progress in 2022.

As the world emerged from the Covid-19 pandemic in 2022, scientists in Europe began once again to focus their efforts on tackling the other major burdens to health in society, such as brain disease and cancer.

Among the challenges that researchers have faced are questions about the value of animal research. That challenge was emphatically answered in Switzerland in February 2022, when the general public voted overwhelmingly in favour of the use of animals – by 79% to 21% – in a national referendum.

In June, Switzerland’s biomedical community became the eighth country in Europe (and ninth worldwide) to sign a Transparency Agreement on Animal Research, with a commitment for the 24 signatory institutions to be 'clear about how and why we use or support the use of animals in research'.

And in March last year, the EU Commission voiced its strong support for biomedical research, in a response to calls by the European Parliament for a faster phase-out of the use of animals in scientific studies.

The Commission acknowledged that despite biomedical advances, alternative methods still have very limited uses currently and that it is still 'not possible to predict when scientifically valid methods will become available that can replace particular animal procedures'.

Meanwhile, also in 2022, researchers showed how animal studies, with hamsters and mice, were helping us understand the then-dominant Omicron variant of Covid-19, including how the virus spread and caused disease.

In September, the first booster vaccines targeting the Omicron variant, were authorised by regulators across the world, solely using data from animal testing.

One of the most significant global medical advances had come a month earlier when the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced plans to allow the transplantation of pig organs into humans to be tested in clinical trials.

The proposal comes in the wake of a handful of experimental surgeries involving pig organ transplants (xenotransplantation). This included the first pig-to-human heart transplant at the University of Maryland Medical Centre Baltimore – the critically ill patient, David Bennett, lived for two months after the groundbreaking surgery.

Animal studies are also helping us understand the potential effects of climate change, with a study by EARA member Radboud University, Nijmegen, Netherlands, and the University of Montpellier, France, predicting which species of fish are most at risk from global warming and pollution.

"Once we have identified these rules for fish, we can ultimately predict which fish species are most at risk from environmental change," said Radboud researcher Wilco Verberk.

Biomedical advances across Europe in 2022


Outstanding research on camel antibodies The prestigious Gabbay Award was awarded to Belgian researcher, Professor Jan Steyaert, of the VIB-VUB Center for Structural Biology (CSB), Brussels, who was recognised for his pioneering of a type of antibody (nanobodies) derived from camels. Nanobodies have led to breakthroughs in structural biology, nanotechnology and drug discovery.


Reversing antibiotic resistance in TB A new treatment, studied in both in cells and mice, can counter resistance to antibiotics by the bacteria that cause tuberculosis (TB). Researchers from the University of Lille, the Institute of Pasteur, and CNRS, among others, have found that a specific molecule (SMARt751) can help ethionamide perform as an active drug against the bacteria.


Understanding severe autoimmune disease Using studies in mice and patients, researchers at the Institute of Molecular Medicine and Experimental Immunology at Bonn University Hospital, together with international colleagues, have discovered what triggers a rare, severe autoimmune disease.

ANCA-associated vasculitis causes severe inflammation of blood vessels in the lungs, often leading to fatal pulmonary haemorrhages and also kidney failure.


Dog cancer vaccine A cancer vaccine has been found to be effective in treating multiple types of cancers in mice and dogs.

The Dutch researchers from the Cancer Center Amsterdam, the Veterinary Referral Centre Korte Akkeren, EARA member the University of Maastricht, and Amsterdam UMC, have developed a vaccine, called Griffioen – named after Arjan Griffioen, professor of Experimental Oncology at Amsterdam UMC.

Among the dog patients was Rax, a 10-year old pet dog who had developed bone cancer. After treatment the tumours disappeared and the dog returned to normal health.

The dog’s owner said: "Rax is still so strong and sprightly, we wanted to give him a chance. The most important consideration was whether he would still have quality of life after the operation. Looking back, we made the right choice; he is his old self again."

The team hope that this research will contribute to a cancer vaccine that also works for humans.


Fruit flies give insights on blindness Research in Portugal has taken a step forward in understanding blindness, through the eyes of fruit flies.

A team from ITQB NOVA and EARA member Instituto Gulbenkian de Ciência, Oeiras, has now identified a way to produce rhodopsin – a protein that is essential to vision and crucial for animal sight.


New treatment for rare brain disease A study, on mice and patient brain tissues, shed light on a rare disease and suggested a treatment based on routinely used blood-thinning drugs.

Cerebral cavernous malformations (CCMs) are abnormal groups of tightly-packed small blood vessels in the brain, which can cause serious problems, such as epileptic attacks, neurological problems and strokes.

The researchers concluded that patients suffering from CCM could greatly benefit from antithrombotic drugs to break down the clots.

"Both in the mice and in the tissue samples, we saw that blood clots had formed in the malformed blood vessels," said Peetra Magnusson, of Uppsala University, who led the study.


Paralysed patients walk with spinal implants Researchers at École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), and Centre Hospitalier Universitaire Vaudois (CHUV) have developed an implant that allows patients with a complete spinal cord injury to stand and walk again.

The findings, published in the journal Nature Medicine, were based on years of studies using monkeys and rats.

"This is not a cure for spinal cord injury. But it is a critical step to improve people's quality of life," leading scientist Grégoire Courtine told the BBC.


Shedding light on brain tumours Scientists have created a method to help surgeons remove brain cancers, such as glioblastoma multiforme, more effectively and boost the immune response to fight any remaining cancer cells.

A collaboration between the Institute of Cancer Research (ICR), UK, and the Medical University of Silesia, Poland, used a technique called photoimmunotherapy, which uses two molecules attached to each other that help to bind to the tumour and then emit a fluorescent light.


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