December 15, 1997

New York University, like other research institutions, has a mandate to conduct biomedical and behavioral research that serves the public. Some of this research involves the use of animals, mainly mice and rats and other animals bred specifically for this purpose. This research has improved the quality of life and extended life for millions of people, as well as pets and farm animals. Indeed, virtually every major advance in medicine and surgery in this century has been made possible through the responsible use of laboratory animals. These advances are numerous, and include vaccines for childhood diseases (measles, diphtheria, mumps, whooping cough, polio); antibiotics to treat infectious diseases; insulin to manage and treat diabetes; and medications to control high blood pressure that can lead to death from heart attack, stroke, or kidney failure. Techniques developed and tested on animals have made it possible to correct congenital heart defects, perform microsurgery to reattach severed limbs, and carry out organ transplants. Research with animals has produced medicines and vaccines for dogs (canine distemper, infectious hepatitis virus, parvovirus), cats (feline leukemia, pneumonia complex), horses (equine encephalitis, rhinovirus, influenza) , and farm animals (anthrax, tetanus).

New York University supports the development and use of techniques that can supplement or replace animal research. However, there is no definitive alternative to the use of animals. Even the most sophisticated non-animal methodologies cannot mimic the complicated interactions among cells, tissues and organs that occur in living beings. Ultimately, virtually all new drugs and treatments must be tested on animals serving as surrogates for us as well as their own or other species of animals.

Modern medicine is built on the irrefutable benefits of animal research. As the following examples demonstrate, painstaking animal research over many years has resulted in treatments and medical procedures that have saved and improved many lives and tha t we now take for granted.

Each year in this country, thousands of patients with diseased kidneys, lungs, livers, hearts, and other organs are treated by transplantation. When surgeons first began to consider the possibility of replacing diseased organs with healthy ones, they faced as a formidable barrier, the patient’s rapid rejection of the donor tissue. The basis of this rejection phenomenon was uncovered early in the century by scientists who tested transplantation in animal experiments. They found that when transplantation was performed between animals of different species or between genetically different animals of the same species, the transplants were quickly rejected. However, transplants between genetically identical individuals were accepted. Later, using animals, scientists found that it was the immune system that was responsible for the rejection phenomenon. This insight focused attention on development of drugs and procedures that would suppress the immune system and permit transplantation between genetically dissimilar individuals. Early animal studies involved the use of whole body radiation and highly toxic drugs; these caused serious suppression of the immune system and were far too dangerous for use in humans. The breakthrough came in the 1960’s when scientists noticed that a drug being developed as an anti-cancer agent, 6-mercaptopurine, could suppress the immune system in rabbits and could triple the survival time of transplants made between genetically dissimilar animals. Through experiments using animals, better and less toxic versions of this drug and similar compounds were further developed, and were finally tested in 1963 in patients with related donor kidney transplants: the one-year survival rate soared from practically nothing to 80%. For their work in the development of this class of drugs, George Hitchings and Gertrude Elion (an NYU alumna) were awarded the 1988 Nobel Prize in Medicine. Since those early studies, many new and improved drugs, including the steroids and cyclosporin, were developed to further improve the success of organ transplants. Today, transplants of many different organs are common, and the expectation of long-term survival is routine. The use of transplants has expanded so that bone marrow transplants are now being used in the treatment of cancers, and are being investigated for applicability to a host of other diseases and for use in the molecular and genetic medicines that are likely to dominate health care in the coming century.

Throughout the 1950’s, polio was a common and devastating disease, particularly among children. Summer vacations, especially, were shadowed by the fear of contracting polio, and the iron-lung machine was a regular feature of our culture. Early in the century, animal studies had demonstrated that the disease was caused by an infectious virus. Researchers had found that polio was induced in monkeys who were injected with tissue extracts from a boy who had died of polio. However, lacking an animal model in which to study the disease, produce the virus, and test methods for its prevention, little progress could be made. Eventually, it became possible to transfer the virus from monkey to monkey, and then to transfer a strain of the virus to the rat and to the mouse, species which could be used in sufficient numbers to establish the existence and virulence of the polio virus. Finally, using monkey cells, the virus was grown in tissue culture and was used to develop the vaccines which, eventually, nearly eliminated the disease. Parenthetically, both Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin, credited with development of the “killed” and “live” versions of the vaccine, the types still in use today, received their MD degrees as well as their subsequent fellowship and re search training from New York University. Recently, Professor Sabin said, “My own experience of more than 60 years in biomedical research amply demonstrated 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.” Polio is now virtually unknown in the USA and Europe. A worldwide polio vaccination has already prevented over 2 million cases of polio, although there are still about 100,000 new cases per year. The human polio vaccine has also benefited animals: it was used to save a colony of East African chimpanzees when the animal behaviorist Jane Goodall diagnosed a polio epidemic among the group .

A final example concerns erythropoietin, a new drug that has become the first major, widely used medicine produced by the biotechnology industry. A common difficulty faced by patients with chronic infectious diseases, cancer, kidney failure, and many ot her diseases, is anemia, that is, a deficiency in the red blood cells that carry oxygen from the lungs to the tissues. The anemia can be so severe as to become life-threatening. For many years, the only treatment was continued blood transfusion, a procedure which is associated with a number of clinical risks, is very costly, and cannot be carried out indefinitely. Scientists had suspected that red blood cell production is regulated by a humoral substance, a hormone-like protein that circulated in the blood, but no one had been able to verify the existence, isolate, or characterize any such material, in part because it was present in blood in very tiny quantities. Finally, using mice, researchers in NYU’s Biology Department and elsewhere found a way to demonstrate the existence of this hormone, and developed methods for measuring the levels of the hormone and increasing its concentration in blood so that it could be isolated. They also showed that the hormone was produced by the kidneys in response to the amount of oxygen in the blood. These critical discoveries, made possible by experimental animal research, led to the genetic isolation and cloning of human erythropoietin, now a commonly used and very important drug in clinical use. The discoveries also led to the development of a number of other similar factors that regulate blood cell production and that are extensively used in patient treatment today.

The use of animals in biological, medical, and veterinary research has been vital for medical advances in the past. It continues to be an essential component of our search to understand and ultimately to treat serious illness.

Robert Berne, Senior Vice President for Health, New York University

For additional information about the University’s position on the use of laboratory animals in research, see the Statement to the University Community on Scientific Research and Animal Welfare, November 24, 1997, and the Statement to the University Community on Academic Freedom and Recent Events Regarding Animal Research, November 17, 1997.

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