Feature: A momentous year for human health - a look back at biomedical research in 2021

Updated: May 18




With a spotlight on animals during the recent Biomedical Research Awareness Day (BRAD) and next month's Be Open About Animal Research Day (#BOARD22) it is worth taking a look back at 2021 and the remarkable impact that their use has had on the protection and improvement of human health.


The critical role that animal studies played in the fight against Covid-19 is now well understood, both in helping researchers understand the virus and its effects and then in the testing phases of all the successful vaccines that were rolled out, in record time, last year.


Researchers from around the world came forward to explain just why it was necessary to use animals in Covid-19 vaccine development.

A leading member of the Oxford Vaccine Group, Professor Dame Sarah Gilbert, spoke in detail about the contribution of animal studies in the development of the Oxford-AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine, at the BBC’s annual Dimbleby Lecture.


"It was within days of receiving the safety data from our animal trials that we were putting the vaccine into the arms of our first volunteers,” said Professor Dame Sarah Gilbert.

While EARA member the Spanish Society of Science for Laboratory Animals (SECAL), produced a video answering common questions from the general public.


Even now further research continues to provide valuable insights for scientists on the virus. At EARA member, the Biomedical Primate Research Centre, Netherlands, a study of

macaque monkeys has discovered the hidden long-term effects Covid-19 can have on the body, due to continued presence of the virus in organs after the infection has passed.


And a collaboration between EARA member Sanofi, and Covid-19 vaccine developer, BioNTech, Germany, has adapted the science behind the vaccine to create a cocktail of messenger RNA (mRNA) able to halt and reverse tumour growth in mice.


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 2021.


Medical advances across Europe


BELGIUM

New target for immune treatments of blood cancer

Researchers at VIB and KU Leuven have identified a new target to treat patients with an advanced form of blood cancer by modifying how cells respond to immunotherapy, thanks to research in mice and humans.


Dengue fever breakthrough

Researchers at EARA member KU Leuven and the Centre for Drug Design and Discovery (CD3), have developed an antiviral treatment for dengue fever which when given alongside the vaccine could prevent infection.


DENMARK

Minipigs provide alternative for vaccine testing In October, EARA members from Denmark and France, demonstrated how minipigs can help develop and test new vaccines against whooping cough. At the Ellegaard Göttingen Minipigs online webinar, French company Sanofi Pasteur, explained how the minipig provides a good model for studying the long-term effects of the pertussis vaccine, used to protect children from whooping cough, compared to baboons which are the current preferred model.


FRANCE

Potential new vaccine for severe asthma Researchers at the Institut Pasteur, Paris, have developed a successful vaccine to treat severe asthma in mice. In collaboration with NEOVACS, a French biotechnology company, the team created a vaccine that generates antibodies against the inflammatory molecules known to cause severe asthma a lung condition which can cause breathing difficulties.


GERMANY

New insights to fight blood cancer A collaboration between the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine (MDC) and Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin, has created a new approach to treat blood cancer by changing the immune cells in mouse models.


HUNGARY

Value of animals confirmed in diabetes studies

A recent publication by Hungarian and Portuguese scientists has confirmed the value of animal studies in diabetes research. The team, led by i3S, Porto, Portugal, together with the University of Debrecen, evaluated the success of a class of Type-2-diabetes drugs on rats, mice and humans and compared the outcomes for each species, commenting on the animal welfare in each study.


“These results, while on animal models of just one disease treated with one drug class, suggest current criticism of animal models may not be entirely warranted,” lead author Nuno Franco concluded in the study.

ITALY

Treating kidney disease using mice Researchers at the University of Padua, have found a potential target for the early treatment of kidney inflammation caused by lupus, thanks to studies observing a molecule found in patients in a mouse model.


NETHERLANDS

Progress on treatment for deafness Researchers at Radboud University Medical Centre, are developing a way to prevent sudden-onset deafness by targeting a hereditary gene mutation, in experiments that will now be repeated in animal trials.

PORTUGAL

Fighting sepsis with mice A team of researchers from the Instituto Gulbenkian de Ciência (IGC), has found new evidence to understand and fight sepsis thanks to identification of a molecule in mice that, when removed, increased their ability to kill bacteria.


Taking advantage of approved drugs to treat a rare disease Researchers at the Life and Health Sciences Research Institute, University of Minho, are conducting tests on drugs, already tested on animals and approved for other diseases, to treat the debilitating neurodegenerative disorder Machado-Joseph disease.


SLOVENIA

Gene therapy for skin cancer

Researchers at the University of Ljubljana, Slovenia, have developed a new gene therapy for a common skin cancer, which accounts for about a quarter of all cancers. Patient trials will start this month, and mark the first time that a gene therapy, first trialled in dogs, has been tested in patients in Europe. Earlier studies showed that the therapy was successful in pet dogs with a type of skin cancer, where trials at the Veterinary Faculty at the university showed a full recovery when the therapy was given alongside chemotherapy.


SPAIN

New target for Huntington’s Disease research 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 allowed them to visualise individual neurons, in a mouse model of the disease for the first time.


Potential breakthrough for rare disease study

After successful tests in mice, scientists from Cima University of Navarra, Pamplona, have developed a gene therapy for a rare and potentially life-threatening liver disease.

Due to an inherited gene (ATP7B) defect, Wilson’s disease (WD) causes an accumulation of toxic copper levels in the body, mainly in the liver and brain. The university, working with the biotech company Vivet Therapeutics, France, and in partnership with the pharmaceutical company Pfizer, has developed a miniaturised version of the ATP7B gene – called VTX-801 - that aims to reduce the levels of copper.


SWITZERLAND

New technology makes tumours attack themselves Scientists at the University of Zurich, have developed a new technology which instructs cancer cells to start killing themselves by tricking them into producing anti-cancer antibodies.

In a study published in PNAS, the researchers were able to instruct tumour cells in a mouse model of breast cancer to start producing Herceptin, a clinically approved breast cancer antibody treatment, and found that the levels of antibody in the tumour were higher than if they had administered the drug through the normal route.


Animal studies and new cholesterol jab A new type of injection to lower cholesterol in the blood has now been approved for use both by EU and the UK. Pharma company Novartis has received approval for inclisiran, a jab that reduces ‘bad fat’ in people with a high risk of heart disease. In studies with mice and monkeys, the drug was shown to turn off a gene called PCSK9 which helped the liver remove harmful cholesterol from the blood and break it down.


"Inclisiran represents a potential game-changer in preventing thousands of people from dying prematurely from heart attacks and strokes,” said Meindert Boysen, deputy chief executive of the UK’s standards body NICE.

UNITED KINGDOM

Antibody technology means new medicines for dogs Scientists at PetMedix, have created a system which could help make better potential new antibody medicines for dogs. In collaboration with the animal health branch of EARA member Boehringer Ingelheim, the team created a genetically-altered mouse (Ky9), which contains some dog DNA, meaning it can then produce antibodies specific for dogs.


Better treatment for endometriosis

Research at the University of Oxford, has found a potential new way to fight endometriosis - a disease that causes pain, inflammation and infertility in women. The team carried out genetic analyses of rhesus macaques with endometriosis - as they develop the condition naturally - and human patients and identified a gene (NPSR1) associated with the disease.


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