In October, James P. Allison, a researcher at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, and Tasuku Honjo, a scientist at Kyoto University in Japan, won the Nobel Prize in medicine for their groundbreaking cancer research.
With the help of mice, they developed six revolutionary cancer treatments that target the immune system. Some patients who received just one round of therapy have survived for nearly two decades.
Without animal models, the research breakthroughs of Allison, Honjo and countless other scientists would never have come to pass. Indeed, animal research drives medical progress — for humans and animals alike.
Allison and Honjo are not the first Nobel laureates to rely on animals to conduct cutting-edge cancer research. More than 50 years ago, Charles Brenton Huggins won the Nobel Prize for his work with rats, rabbits and hens that led to the development of hormonal treatments for prostatic cancer. In 2008, Harald zur Hausen received the Nobel for his discovery that human papilloma virus causes cervical cancer. Hamsters, mice and cows were crucial to his research efforts.
Cancer research in animals is also yielding insights that benefit other animals.
Each year, about 6 million dogs and 6 million cats are diagnosed with cancer. Nearly half of dogs and one-third of cats over the age of 10 develop the disease. They are among the many beneficiaries of the path-breaking cancer research conducted by generations of scientists.
Consider the story of Emma, a 10-year-old Portuguese water dog diagnosed earlier last year with glioblastoma — an aggressive form of brain cancer that claimed former Sen. John McCain's life.
Emma's prognosis was bleak. So her owner decided to enroll her in a clinical trial at Virginia Tech. After six weeks of treatment, Emma's tumor shrank dramatically, and her symptoms subsided. The program was so successful that the National Institute for Health has pledged more funding, with the hope of expanding the clinical trial to humans.
Or take recent research on hemangiosarcoma, a form of cancer that damages canine blood vessels. Less than half of dogs live six months following diagnosis. But in 2017, veterinary researchers at the University of Minnesota conducted a trial in dogs that boosted six-month survival rates in the test group by more than 20 percentage points.
Since hemangiosarcoma in dogs is similar to angiosarcoma in humans, researchers may be able to use those findings to treat both species more effectively.
There's new hope for dogs with bone cancer, too. A University of Pennsylvania trial of dogs with osteosarcoma found that an experimental therapy more than doubled the two-year survival rate for the condition. The treatment kept one research subject, an Old English Sheepdog named Dexter, cancer-free for five years.
Osteosarcoma in dogs closely mirrors a similar cancer in young children. So this research could hold promise for humans.
Researchers at the University of Illinois are testing a new treatment that could help cats with oral squamous cell carcinoma — a mouth cancer that kills many a couple of months after they're diagnosed. The scientists are hopeful that their work will have applications in dogs and humans, too.
Despite the contributions of animals to medical science, many activists believe it's time to shut down research in animal models. They claim that research techniques have progressed to a point where computer models and live cell cultures are adequate substitutes for animals.
But it's nearly impossible to simulate how a treatment would work in an entire living organism. The biochemistry of living organisms is incredibly complex, and biological systems interact in a seemingly infinite number of ways. The computing power needed to replicate those processes just doesn't exist. And even if it was feasible, scientists must first fully comprehend exactly what it is that they're modelling.
There are also loads of similarities in DNA and organ structure across species. So an animal model can offer a holistic view of how a human — or another animal, for that matter — may respond to treatment.
We need to do everything we can to fight cancer. As multiple Nobel laureates have proven, animal research is crucial to that effort.