Studying animals gives us a window into understanding how our own bodies work. We then use this knowledge to develop treatments to devastating diseases. Over hundreds of years, animal research has contributed to every major medical advance, leading to dramatic improvements in both how long we live and how healthy we are. Some of these advances—such as the antibiotic penicillin, the polio vaccine and the hormone insulin—have saved millions of lives and drastically improved the quality of life for millions more.
Polio ravaged hundreds of thousands of people during the early half through the mid-20th century. After four decades of research conducted with mice, rats and monkeys, Dr. Jonas Salk and his team of researchers at the University of Pittsburgh created the first effective polio vaccine in 1954 and distributed it to “polio pioneers” in the Pittsburgh region. Dr. Albert Sabin spent years developing an oral polio vaccine through research with rabbits, monkeys and rodents. Sabin later said that without the use of animals and human beings, “it would have been impossible to acquire the important knowledge needed to prevent much suffering and premature death not only among humans but also among animals.”
Dr. Thomas Starzl, the “father” of organ transplantation in humans, developed much of his pioneering work from studying basic research on surgical procedures in dogs in the 1950s. Starzl refined his work and involved other nonhuman animals, including pigs and baboons, and in 1967 performed the first successful human liver transplant.
Andrew Schwartz, a professor in Pitt’s Department of Neurobiology, has conducted groundbreaking research on brain-machine interface. Schwartz and his team have trained Rhesus monkeys to conduct certain tasks using only their brains. Most recently, Schwartz and his team trained monkeys to feed themselves using a robotic arm through the use of electrode implants. This research was then applied to a woman with quadriplegia who was able to maneuver a mind-controlled, human-like robot arm.
Two assistant professors in Pitt’s Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, Robert Gaunt and Jennifer Collinger, both bioengineers, have produced extraordinary research on the sensory component of brain-machine inferences and the ability of a man with quadriplegia to both control and feel with neuroprothestics. Read a Q&A with Professor Collinger.
Improvements in treating kidney disease have resulted from fundamental research involving the use of laboratory animals. Research conducted with mice, guinea pigs, sheep and dogs has led to creating materials for the first successful shunt; understanding how the body rejects a transplant; restoring high blood pressure to normal level; and developing drugs to improve the success rates of kidney transplants.
Pitt’s Center for Kidney Research continues to provide one-stop services for scientists who are conducting breakthrough kidney research, yet do not have the experience, resources, or personnel to shepherd their discoveries into the development pipeline.
One in three childhood cancer survivors is at risk of becoming infertile due to chemotherapy or radiation, and since their sperm or eggs have not matured, assisted reproduction using those sperm or eggs is not an option when they become adults. In a major first, researchers at Pitt's School of Medicine and the Magee-Womens Research Institute, using a nonhuman primate model, found that immature testicular tissue can be cryopreserved, and later used to restore fertility to the same animal.
The advance marks a milestone in the development of next-generation assisted reproduction therapies, and offers hope for fertility preservation in prepubertal boys who are about to undergo cancer treatments.
The safety of anti-seizure medicines and surgical treatments for epilepsy in the United States were approved only after being deemed safe on animals. The identification of gene mutation in mice has led to greater understanding of the cause of epilepsy, and mice are key to discovering new therapies and even possible cures, according to the Foundation for Biomedical Research. Pitt’s Brain Modulation Lab is building upon that foundation by filling gaps in our understanding of human brain function that are critical for helping our patients.
Bioengineers at Pitt's Swanson School of Engineering are working with rats to develop ways to view the effect of cocaine on the brain in real-time. These researchers also are using a polymer coating to protect brain sensors from harmful exposure once they are implanted inside the rats. This coating could enhance the sensors’ ability to relay information to the researchers working to understand why young people are more vulnerable than adults to highly addictive substances.