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Feature: Biomedical breakthroughs in 2020 - how research with animals contributed

While Covid-19 research has dominated the headlines, day-to-day research into many other conditions to improve our understanding of the human body has also continued. Here are some of the breakthroughs achieved across Europe in 2020.

The essential role of animals in biomedical research was never clearer than in the momentous year of 2020. As the Covid-19 pandemic took hold, research involving animals played a critical role at the outset in helping researchers understand the virus itself, the mechanics of its transmission, and eventually the safety and efficiency of all the vaccines produced to bring the end of the pandemic a step closer.

To demonstrate this achievement, EARA produced a global interactive map to show what biomedical research was conducted using animal models in 2020, the species used and its location, across 24 different European countries.

In particular, research with ferrets, monkeys and genetically altered mice, allowed scientists to gain a greater understanding of how the virus was passed between individuals, and how it affected the cells of the body. At the University of Helsinki, dogs were trained to identify Covid-19 in humans using their sense of smell. The dogs are now being used as part of a pilot programme at some airports to detect infection in new arrivals.

Llamas used in research at Ghent University
Llamas used in research at Ghent University, Tim Coppens

Meanwhile, the search for alternative treatments involved other, larger animals including llamas and alpacas. Research conducted by EARA member Ghent University in Belgium in collaboration with the University of Texas and the National Institutes of Health, USA, showed that llama antibodies are effective in neutralising the coronavirus by preventing it from breaking through into host cells. This work has now moved to preclinical trials in monkeys and hamsters before entering human clinical trials.

Large mammals such as pigs and sheep have also been valuable in Covid-19 research, for the production and development of ventilators which have been essential for patients with severe Covid-19 infections.

Vaccine development was also reliant on animal testing, with all the approved vaccines tested for safety with mice and non-human primates in line with guidance from the European Medicines Agency.

“The rhesus macaque is pretty much the closest thing we have to humans,”

Dr. Vincent Munster, who led the primate research testing for the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine.

A picture of two rhesus macaques
Rhesus macaques at the Biomedical Primate Research Centre

Meanwhile, work continued on vaccines for other deadly diseases that threaten large human populations. In June 2020, the World Health Organization announced that the world’s second-deadliest Ebola outbreak had been ended thanks to rollout of the first successful vaccine and two antibody drugs developed in monkeys. Research into development of a Zika vaccine is also improving, with two candidates undergoing trials in mice and monkeys.

Here are some other breakthroughs in biomedical research from around Europe this year.

Medical advances across Europe


Researchers at the Austrian Academy of Sciences (IMBA) have used fruit flies to understand how cancer cells generate energy to allow them to keep dividing to form a tumour. Through imaging researchers noticed that the metabolic changes in the fly cancer cells were due to changes in the mitochondria, which provide energy to the cell.

"Our findings overturn previous concepts about the biology of these tumours and open up an array of exciting follow up questions,”

said Jürgen Knoblich, IMBA group leader and scientific director.


Scientists from EARA member KU Leuven succeeded in growing bone tissue on a large scale. Based on studies with laboratory animals, including mice, the team produced bone tissue that could be grown through 3D bioprinting – a method used to fabricate biomedical parts that imitate natural tissue characteristics.


Research at Aarhus University has shown what happens to nanoparticles, tools that can be used to deliver drugs, in the bloodstream of a living organism. Using zebrafish embryos, the team traced the journey of nanoparticles travelling through the blood to their final destination in the cell.


A study in mice by EARA members the University of Helsinki, and the Max Planck Institute for Biology and Aging, Germany, has found how loss of a protein named Rictor can prevent hair regrowth.


Researchers at the University of Lille, have found a potential new strategy to improve the symptoms in Parkinson’s disease patients by creating an oxygen-free formulation of dopamine, which improves the motor skills of monkeys with the condition.


Paralysed mice are able to walk again thanks to treatment
Paralysed mice are able to walk again thanks to treatment, Lehrstuhl fur Zellphysiologie

Scientists at the Ruhr University Bochum, have made paralysed mice walk again by stimulating healing in the spinal cord (video). Researchers used gene therapy to encourage cells to produce a protein which stimulated nerve cell growth in the damaged muscle, and found that mice were able to walk again within 2-3 weeks.

Researchers have studied hibernating bears to understand how they avoid muscle wasting. The findings from EARA member the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine (MDC), Berlin, could help prevent hospital patients, and astronauts, from suffering muscle atrophy, usually caused by a lack of physical activity.


Researchers at NYU Langone Health’s Neuroscience Institute, USA, and Instituto Italiano di Tecnologia and the University of Trento, have used animal studies to work out how the brain understands odours. The findings show that by activating a specific pattern of nerve endings in mice brains, they can make mice smell scents that don’t exist in the real world.


Scientists at the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience (NIN), Amsterdam, have created a brain implant that could restore some vision in blind people by creating high-resolution implants which were inserted to the brains of two sighted monkeys. The results show that these implants make it possible to recognise artificially induced images.


EARA member Instituto Gulbenkian de Ciência has used a mouse model to help understand how immune cells known as T lymphocytes can lead to blood cancer when not properly developed. The team hope that understanding how the cells develop might lead to easier and earlier diagnosis of such cancers in the future.

Scientists at the CEDOC-NOVA Medical School, Lisbon, have found a therapy that could provide a way for patients to manage type 2 diabetes with fewer side-effects. The team found that is possible to improve insulin resistance and normalise sugar levels in blood, by modulating electrically the carotid sinus nerve (CSN) in rats - the nerve that connects the carotid body with the brain.

“The use of animals has been essential to understand the mechanisms underlying chronic diseases,”

said Ana Isabel Moura Santos, Vice-Dean of NOVA Medical School.


Researchers at the University of Barcelona, have found mutations in a protein that can be linked to Huntington’s disease, a neurodegenerative condition that currently has no cure. In the study, scientists used a new imaging technique which allows them to visualise individual neurons, in a mouse model of the disease for the first time.


Surgeon connects a liver to the machine
Surgeon connects a liver to the machine, USZ

Researchers at EARA member the University of Zurich, in collaboration with other Zurich institutions (University Hospital, ETH and Wyss) have developed a new machine that can maintain human livers for longer with the aim of allowing more patients to get transplants. The machine was developed using pig livers and replicates the conditions in the body, including maintaining a similar pressure as within humans.


Researchers at University College London, have found a new antibody cancer drug that has significantly improved the life expectancy of mice. The scientists developed a more specific antibody to target the regulatory T cells to prevent them from halting the body’s immune response, whilst encouraging other immune cells to target the cancer.

“A single dose of the antibody gave us near hundred percent complete responses in animal models”

said Professor Sergio Quezada, University College London

Commenting on the biomedical achievements in 2020, EARA executive director, Kirk Leech, said: “Despite the obstacles, the remarkable advances in biomedical research this year, especially with regards to the Covid-19 pandemic and at a time of such crisis, highlight the indispensable role of animals in research.”



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