On 31st October 1920, Fredrick Banting, a scientist working in Toronto, wrote these words in his note book, “Ligate pancreatic ducts of dog….Try to isolate the internal secretion of these to try to relieve glycosuria”.
It was a pivotal moment in hormone and animal research.
Other scientists had already suggested that the cause of diabetes was the loss of secretion of a hormone, now known as insulin, by the Islets of Langerhans in the pancreas. Theories suggested insulin controlled sugar metabolism, consequently its loss led to an accumulation of blood sugar and excess of sugar in urine. Attempts to provide insulin to diabetic patients by feeding them fresh pancreatic extracts had failed, presumably because insulin is destroyed by enzymes found in the pancreas. Therefore, the problem was to develop a way to extract insulin from the pancreas before it had been destroyed.
Banting, using dogs and the method already briefly described from his notebook, solved this conundrum. Later, working with calves, he refined this insulin extraction method and proceeded to save millions of lives and win himself the Nobel Prize. Without his laboratory animals, which were key components in the breakthrough, Banting would have failed, making the collection of insulin and the subsequent diabetic treatment impossible.
Much maligned, but scientifically incredibly important, the use of laboratory animals, although still able to cause controversy, is vital to research. From the zebrafish and the rat, to the dog and the marmoset, scientists routinely experiment on animals in order to further humanities understanding of life and disease. Without them, research would be stifled and many lifesaving treatments would remain undiscovered.
The naysayers would have you believe that this is not the case. Animals, they say, because they look and act differently to us, cannot possibly represent the human body or mimic his diseases. But, as modern science points out, all life is actually at the cellular and molecular level. We are made of trillions of cells that contain molecules, such as hormones, which make us, and the zebrafish, rat, dog and marmoset, possible.
Cells are life and we are a composite of them.
Consequently, when we look at life at the cellular level almost all life is remarkably similar. For example, we possess almost all the same hormones that a dog and a calf possess. Remember the insulin that Banting extracted from the pancreas of his dogs and calves? That insulin, when given to diabetic patients, was only effective as a treatment because the insulin molecule is so similar across species. If this had not been the case then that calf insulin would have been ineffective and developing a treatment for diabetes would have been seriously compromised.
And it is not just our understanding of hormone-related disorders, such as diabetes, that have benefited from the use of animals. Rabbits aided Louis Pasteur to cure rabies, Rhesus monkeys provided Jonas Salk with the polio vaccine, dogs and the technical advances of Albert Starr pioneered heart valve replacement surgery, armadillos harbouring the leprosy bacteria led to the synthesis of leprosy antibiotics, and macaques helped develop effective drugs against the AIDS virus. This list could go on and on.
Like it or not, at the cellular and molecular level, the fact is humans are similar to other animals and this makes those animals good models to use in order to understand human biology and find new treatments for disease.
This is not to say that alternatives to animals should not be thoroughly investigated. In fact significant money, primarily provided by the National Centre for the 3 R’s (NC3R – see their website here), is invested for the replacement, refinement and reduction of animals in science. Furthermore, regulations and the ethical management of animal research are regularly re-assessed and refined, with the UK having the toughest laws on these issues. Most scientific societies, including the Society for Endocrinology, highlight their importance and scientists constantly have to justify their requirements for the use of animals in their work.
Encouragingly, the UK public’s perception of animal research is generally supportive. Nine in ten conditionally accept the idea of animal research and testing to some degree, with three in five accepting the idea unconditionally. About three quarters accept animal studies as long as they are for medical research purposes.
Sometimes, however, small vocal anti-vivisectionist groups hog the media limelight to suggest these facts are otherwise. Recently, scientists have begun to fight back as they recognise the importance of greater public transparency of their work. Supporters of the need for animals in research have rallied under the Pro-Test (see here) banner and march annually in Oxford. Furthermore, there are various webpages (Understanding Animal Research, Speaking of Research) that highlight how critical animal research is for furthering the biological goals of understanding life and curing disease.
It is now over ninety years since Fredrick Banting’s historic hormonal studies. Since then, through the plethora of vaccines, surgery techniques, antibiotics, and drugs, animal research has saved countless lives. Alternatives are in development, but the use of animals to further scientific understanding and combat disease will remain for the foreseeable future.