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Feature: How animal studies contributed to biomedical breakthroughs in 2023

The progress that scientists made in advancing our knowledge of human health last year has once again shown the continuing importance of the use of animals in research. With Be Open About Animal Research Day (#BOARD24) – the annual celebration of openness on the use of animals – about to take place on Friday, 3 May, EARA communications manager, Bob Tolliday, looks at some of the major contributions to biomedical research from 2023.




In 2023 the Nobel Prize in Medicine, the world’s most prestigious scientific prize, went to researchers whose pioneering work included studies using animals. Katalin Karikó, at the University of Szeged, Hungary, and Drew Weissman, at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine, USA, were awarded the prize for developing messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines for Covid-19. The scientists had focused on ways to deliver lab-made mRNA molecules safely and effectively into the body to trigger an immune response, using mice and cells from cows, mice, rats and humans.


Some of the most dramatic advances in medicine in 2023 were in the field of organ transplantation, again with animal studies playing a major part. Researchers at biotech company eGenesis and Harvard Medical School revealed that a macaque monkey had lived for more than two years after receiving a kidney from a genetically altered pig.


The research used CRISPR gene-editing tools on miniature pigs to make them closer to their human counterparts and tackle organ rejection and any harmful viruses. The work has ultimately led to the first pig kidney transplant to a living human in 2024.


The value of using monkeys in research was also highlighted in a video animation produced by the Wellcome Trust, UK, which explained how monkeys, as well as rodents, help in brain studies for stroke, dementia and schizophrenia, for example


Here is a country-by-country guide to some of last year’s biggest breakthroughs in the use of animals to improve the health of humans and animals, as well as a look at progress in replacing the use of animals where it is possible.


Biomedical advances across Europe in 2023


BELGIUM


Pill success for treating dengue fever

A pill targeted at the dengue virus successfully treated and prevented the infection in mice and monkeys. Developed by EARA member Janssen, the experimental pill protected the animals against infection from different types of the virus – the study included KU Leuven and the Biomedical Primate Research Centre, Netherlands, also EARA members.


Discovering how neurons die in Alzheimer’s

The cause of brain neuron death in Alzheimer’s disease – a key hallmark of the condition – was finally identified, according to a ‘breakthrough’ study in mice. Researchers led by EARA members VIB and KU Leuven managed to uncover how these neurons die by studying mice that had both human and mouse neurons transplanted into their brains.

“For the first time we get a clue to how and why neurons die in Alzheimer's disease,” said Prof Bart De Strooper, at VIB-KU Leuven.

CZECHIA


Research treats spinal cord injury in rats

A successful gene therapy allowed rats with spinal cord injury to regain feeling in their legs. Researchers at the Institute of Experimental Medicine at the Czech Academy of Sciences (pictured) showed that a therapy based on inserting genes into injured neurons to allow them to repair and grow could treat spinal cord injuries.


DENMARK


Insights into kidney injury using mice

Researchers at Aarhus University found that kidney damage after injury can spread to unaffected areas in mice, providing new insights to improve treatment.

“This suggests a previously unknown time window for intervention measures to limit further injury and disease progression in the kidneys,” said lead author Ina Maria Schiessl.

ITALY


Insights into Huntington's disease

A gene involved in Huntington’s disease was identified that could counteract the effects of the disease, in a study led by EARA member the University of Padua. It found that a gene (Mtf1) could protect against cell death in mice and zebrafish with the mutation that causes the disease.


NETHERLANDS


Awards recognise cancer researcher

2023’s prestigious Lasker Awards included scientists who used animals as part of their research into cancer and eye diseases. The Special Achievement Award went to Piet Borst (pictured) at EARA member the Netherlands Cancer Institute, for his pioneering work in several fields of cancer research, including cancer drug resistance and how parasites invade the immune system – see also video.


PORTUGAL


Allergies affect early brain development

Researchers identified the link between severe allergies and brain development, by studying mice with asthma-like features. The study, led by the Center for Neuroscience and Cell Biology of the University of Coimbra (CNC-UC), and also involving the Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz, Germany, and the University of Manchester, UK, both EARA members, also shed light on how these reactions may lead to characteristics akin to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).


SPAIN


Gut bacteria protect against antibiotic-resistant bugs

Scientists at the Foundation for the Promotion of Health and Biomedical Research of Valencia Region, identified five types of bacteria, naturally found in the intestine of mice, that can stop the invasion of other disease-causing bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics. In the study, these natural bacteria could ‘starve’ harmful bacteria of nutrients to prevent their growth – and therefore protect the mice from infection.

SWITZERLAND


Monkey research leads to revolutionary Parkinson's treatment

Animal research paved the way for a spinal implant that gave a 62-year-old man with Parkinson's disease the ability to walk again. Researchers from the University of Lausanne and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, gave the nerve-stimulating implant to patient, Marc Gauthier (pictured), who had been diagnosed with Parkinson's 20 years ago and, despite other treatments, had lost the ability to walk, until now.


Infant liver disease hope 

A research team at EARA member the University of Zurich was awarded the Swiss Pfizer 2023 Research Prize in the Paediatrics for its work with mice. The scientists used gene editing to successfully repair the gene mutations that are responsible for the metabolic liver disorder phenylketonuria (PKU) – a disease causes potentially serious neurological symptoms in infants.


TURKEY


Insights into weight loss in cancer patients

Using mice and human tissues, researchers at Koç University, and UC Louvain, Belgium, identified a possible way to stop or slow down a common wasting syndrome, cachexia, seen in many cancer patients.


UK


Animal and cartilage study for osteoarthritis

Researchers at EARA member the University of Manchester, and its spinout biotechnology company, Link Biologics, studied rats, cells and human cartilage to find better treatments for osteoarthritis – a disease of the joints that can lead to long-term pain and disability. The study found that a fragment of a human protein could help to treat cartilage damage and relieve pain in rats.


Biomedical advances across the world


ARGENTINA


Supplements treat hearing loss in mice

Research led by the National Scientific and Technical Research Council (CONICET) and National University of Córdoba identified that a lack of cholesterol is linked to hearing loss in mice, and have found an effective treatment in the form of a common dietary supplement containing cholesterol.


CANADA


International scientific awards recognise animal research

The 2023 Wolf Prize in Medicine went to Professor Daniel Drucker, at the University of Toronto, for his pioneering research on intestinal hormones and their effect on rats. This contributed to the development of new drugs for type 2 diabetes and short bowel syndrome, where the body cannot absorb enough nutrients from food.


JAPAN


Injection treats endometriosis in monkeys

An antibody can relieve some of the key symptoms of the painful disorder endometriosis when given to monkeys, researchers at the National Institutes of Biomedical Innovation, Health and Nutrition and Jichi Medical University found. They engineered an antibody that, when injected into female macaques with endometriosis, reduced scarring and inflammation in the animals.


USA


'Blockbuster' menopause drug approved

A drug for preventing hot flashes during the menopause has been hailed as a ‘transformative’ treatment for women. Fezolinetant was approved by the US Food and Drug Administration, after tests in animals such as mice and rabbits confirmed that the drug was safe and effective for treating this major menopause symptom.


Advances in research treatments for animals[I2] 


Animal research backed by veterinarians

The World Veterinary Association (WVA) gave its resounding backing to the continued use of animals in biomedical research in a position statement on the humane care of animals in biomedical research. The WVA stated that research in animals is ‘helpful and often mandatory’ to both human and veterinary medicine, for example in guaranteeing the safety and efficacy of treatments, devices and procedures.

The WVA, based in Belgium, added that it ‘strongly supports the use of alternatives to animals in biomedical research whenever feasible’.

SWEDEN


Curing horses with arthritis

A team at the University of Gothenburg and Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences successfully cured arthritic horses of their lameness, providing insights into potential human treatments.


SINGAPORE


Killing cancer cells in dogs

A new type of cancer treatment for dogs was used to treat and cure the disease. Using pet dogs with an existing cancer, researchers at the Yoong Loo Lin School of Medicine, National University of Singapore (NUS Medicine), modified a specific type of stem cell (which can locate tumours) to carry a licensed drug that kills cancer cells in humans and triggers the immune system to fight back.


USA


Helping sick dogs live longer

A gene in dogs linked to increased lifespan may also lead to cancer treatments for humans and animals. A study at the University of California, Davis showed that certain variants of a gene called HER4 meant dogs lived longer by a difference of almost two years. Dogs are affected by many of the same cancers as humans, with the disease being the main cause of death in dogs when they reach the late or terminal stage.


Advances in non-animal research methods


EUROPEAN UNION (EU)


Progress on replacing animals

In its fifth report on the use of alternatives to assess the safety of chemical substances under EU REACH regulations, the European Chemicals Agency said that non-animal methods had been used particularly to obtain data for skin corrosion/irritation, serious eye damage/eye irritation and skin sensitisation.


FRANCE


Alternative study for cat parasite

Researchers at the Grenoble Alpes University were able to use CRISPR gene editing to change the activity of genes of the Toxoplasma gondii parasite, which infects many different species, including humans and cats. This approach allowed them to study the sexual replication stage of the parasite without needing to use cats themselves.


End

 


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