Biomedical research is vital to tackling public health challenges
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Nearly every major medical advancement over the past century has been possible because of research involving animals. Much of what we know about the human brain, which is the most complex system in the known universe, has been discovered through animal research.

For example, many Parkinson's disease patients see marked reduction of their symptoms with deep brain stimulation and paralyzed individuals are regaining their ability to communicate with loved ones or grasp objects through brain-controlled implants. Both of these treatment methods were developed by studying animals.

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While advancements in neuroscience have improved outcomes for patients, there is still much to learn about the complexity of the brain and how it functions. To develop a deeper understanding of the brain, animal models remain essential for the research process and will be the key to finding new treatments for our nation’s costliest and deadliest diseases.

 

As a professor at the Jackson Laboratory (JAX) in Maine, my research focuses on Charcot-Marie-Tooth (CMT) disease, a rare degenerative nerve disorder that causes damage to the peripheral nerves, the bundles of nerve cell fibers that connect the brain and spinal cord to muscles and sensory organs. This condition results in severe muscle weakness and numbness in the feet, legs, hands, and arms, which can lead to deformity. Currently, I am partnering with other scientists on an unusually severe case.

Caroline, now 4, was a toddler when she was diagnosed with a form of CMT known as type 2D (CMT-2D). The disease robs her of muscle strength, preventing her from standing or walking, restricting the use of her hands, and making it difficult for her to breathe.

My work exploring potential treatments for Caroline is dependent upon mice that model her disease. Although alternate research methods are increasingly valuable and play a significant role in my research, they are limited in ways that animal research is not.

Computers can only model narrow facets of a cellular process or disease, not a whole animal response, and cells in a culture dish cannot reproduce the disease we are studying. We need to know how cells are going to interact in a complex mammalian physiology. There is no other option but to use animal models.

Providing high-quality care for these animals is not only our responsibility as scientists, it provides greater certainty about experimental outcomes when developing treatments. Research using animals is highly regulated and is only conducted by trained scientists when essential to human or animal health.

Stringent regulatory requirements ensure that all animals are treated humanely, and all funded institutions are required to maintain an Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) to evaluate and monitor research. Specifically, my lab works closely with our IACUC to develop dosing methods and outcome measures that are humane and viable in mice while also relevant for eventual human clinical trials. Scientists are further guided by principles that protect animal welfare and require that the fewest number of the most appropriate species is used in a particular study.

Results from animal studies are crucial for closing knowledge gaps about health and disease in both humans and animals and for the development of novel treatments to improve the quality of life for the estimated 1.5 billion people suffering from neurological and psychiatric disorders and diseases around the globe.

Robert Burgess, PhD, is a professor in the Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Maine, where he studies synapse development and function relevant to human neuromuscular disorders.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.