As I'm sure you know, I am a scientist. I have worked on a number of different projects, but I am first and foremost a developmental biologist. I think development (as in, the development of an embryo from the joining of a sperm and an egg) is just about the coolest thing on the planet. It's fascinating to try to figure out what is going on, how tissues develop from a small ball of cells and I love to see the different stages of development as an embryo matures. I've had this fascination since college, which goes back at least 15 years, if not more. I do science because I love it. I'm fascinated by the way that bodies work, the organs that have evolved to give us life, and the way all of these form. My research will likely never lead to any gigantic breakthroughs. I will likely never work on a "miracle drug" and I will probably not even touch a piece of human tissue in my career. What I will do is try to figure out what happens in animal models, so that we can apply that knowledge to treating human disease and injury. Animal models are not perfect, by any stretch. Often, they are cumbersome, difficult to work with, and expensive to keep. However, research is necessary, and can often lead to treatments or cures for many diseases.
For example, my lab works on diabetes research. In the most basic sense, diabetes is the loss of beta cells. Beta cells produce insulin which regulates the amount of glucose (sugar) in our blood. Without insulin, blood becomes quite toxic to all our tissues (instead of providing nutrients). Tissues start to break down (including the delicate blood vessels that carry the blood in them), which is why diabetes can lead to effects all over the body, like blindness, poor circulation, and impaired wound healing. Diabetes is extremely common, and the disease is affecting tens of millions of people in the US alone (and growing). In my lab, we are trying to understand how these beta cells develop in the embryo. How are they formed? Is there a set number of them in the body? What kinds of changes occur in the DNA of these specific cells to give them the identity they have? Can we make more? We have lots and lots of questions, but few answers. Answers come incrementally, and slowly. But they come nonetheless.
These answers come because we have made a lot of tools. We have made animal models with diabetes. We have made mice that lack a pancreas. We have made animals that don't have any beta cells. And on and on and on. These animals provide us some clues as to what could be going on in the human body, and how to treat these diseases once they manifest themselves. To date, the best therapy for diabetics remains insulin therapy. Generally administered with injections. Diabetics also have to keep track of the glucose levels in their blood, and dose insulin accordingly. It's a manageable, but tedious disease. A slight increase in insulin dosage can reduce the glucose levels in the blood to dangerously low levels, essentially leading to fainting, or worse, a coma or death. Too high glucose levels can lead to permanent tissue damage, the loss of limbs, neuropathy, and more. It's a fine balance and each individual patient generally needs to find their own course of treatment, their own way of treating the disease.
All of this knowledge has been gleaned through the use of animal models. We are slowly, but surely, learning how this disease can manifest, and how we can treat the disease. We are learning this through the use of animal models. Animals that mimic (to our best ability) diabetes, animals that have impaired beta cell development, animals that receive drug treatments to potentially treat this disease. The list goes on and on. We use these animals not because we are "crazy scientists" who just can't wait to kill things, but because they provide us with the best glimpse of how the body works. We are not blood thirsty mad scientists. We are reasonable, logical people. We don't love killing things. In fact, most of us find it quite unpleasant. We treat our animals with respect, and give them the best life possible. I have never witnessed animal abuse, and I hopefully never will.
I am concerned about this for a number of different reasons. Firstly, I recently read this article in Nature, which talks about animal activists protesting the movement of research animals via airlines. They have nearly shut down animal transport by nearly every airline. This could be disastrous to research, as we are a community that will often share resources (including animals) with other labs around the world. That's a vital part of science. And, look, I agree, research on non-human primates is a little crazy in my book. I understand that people might feel uncomfortable about research on animals that look so much like us. I think the best thing, however, is to keep non-human primate research in countries like the US, where regulations on animal welfare and care are strict, instead of farming research out to other countries where animal welfare is not a concern.
Animal research is necessary, and trust me, you have benefited greatly from it. All modern drugs have been tested on animals, as have all modern therapies for cancer, or even for the common cold. I understand the concern about animals, but I feel that the ends justify the means. When I see a kid at Children's Hospital, clearly battling some form of cancer, I am glad we have the checks in place to test drugs and therapies on animals before it's ever brought to the child's bedside. Drugs can be given to babies on the first day of their birth (especially if they are born with a genetic defect, like hemophilia)- are you willing to administer untested drugs to a newborn? Of course not.
My favorite story in all of this comes from a joint endeavor between Children's Hospital and UPenn. There is a rare genetic disorder that causes blindness. It's caused by a mutation or loss of a specific gene. Children with this disease often lose their sight by the time they are teenagers. This disease also exists in dogs (gold retrievers, I think?). They tested some therapies on the blind dogs, and one therapy seemed to work. Just recently, they tried out this therapy on one eye in a number of patients. The therapy worked, and a number of previously blind (or nearly blind) people can now see. The truth is, this research has been going on for years in the dogs. And yes, some of the dogs had to be sacrificed. However, they were sacrificed humanely and in a respectful manner. The dogs were not mistreated, and they were cared for daily by a dedicated group of technicians, vets, and researchers. And now some kids can see. As improvements are made in this therapy, it will hopefully become a standard treatment for this rare disease, and also may provide a model for how to treat some genetic diseases in the future. I know some work is already focused on hemophilia, a genetic disease in which the blood cannot clot. I say this because it's vital that biomedical research is carried out. It means improved quality of life, a better understanding of the world at large, and a better grasp of the causes of disease and their potential treatments. Computer models or cell culture systems just cannot recapitulate the precise, delicate, and complex situations of disease or metabolism. For this we need our purpose bred animals in the lab, and we will hopefully be better able to treat disease in the future.