This spring marked the 60th anniversary of one of the greatest breakthroughs in the history of public health. Researchers announced the success of vaccine trials for polio, the viral illness that crippled children and terrified parents. Those trials paved the way for the eradication of polio in the United States.
That remarkable breakthrough depended on animal research. Indeed, animals are indispensable to the development of vaccines and medical treatments.
But some in the animal-rights community want to ban the established, well-regulated practice of understanding disease and testing medicine in laboratory animals. Such an agenda places little value on public health and threatens the lives of countless humans.
Consider glioblastoma multiforme, an aggressive brain tumor that kills 12,000 Americans every year. Researchers at Duke University recently developed a new experimental treatment that promises to help save lives. Yet without animal testing, researchers could never have developed it.
The new treatment for GBM is a re-engineered polio virus. Scientists and doctors modified it to help the immune system identify and attack cancer cells.
Before human trials could begin, though, researchers needed to confirm the effectiveness and safety of the new approach. So they injected the re-engineered virus into the brains of macaque monkeys, whose systems operate similarly to those of humans. The results were very positive.
In developing this new approach, the Duke team drew on years of previous animal research.
For example, a 1991 Harvard study used a genetically engineered virus to treat a mouse with GBM. Researchers at the State University of New York at Stony Brook in 1996 showed that a specific receptor on the surface of a mouse's cell made it susceptible to infection by the polio virus.
Four years later, a joint research team from Duke and Stony Brook demonstrated how a genetically modified polio virus could eliminate human tumors through that special receptor in mice. This sequence of research achievements involving animals paved the way for clinical trials in humans and eventually a breakthrough therapy.
Duke's research path is hardly exceptional. The vital role of animal research is readily apparent in other breakthroughs as well.
A 1995 study by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and Georgetown University demonstrated that a modified herpes virus could shrink tumors in mice and nonhuman primates. That led to a successful Phase III clinical trial in humans in 2013 of a treatment for melanoma.
In September, a woman in Japan received an experimental stem-cell treatment for blindness. Previous studies involving monkeys and mice had concluded that the procedure was safe.
Despite these medical advances, activists continue to wage war on animal research. For example, activists have successfully pressured almost all major airlines into refusing to transport animals for research.
The transport ban has been especially costly for researchers in the United States because monkeys come from farms in Asia and Mauritius – where they are humanely raised. Researchers must now charter flights to get the animals they need.
Activists demanding a ban on animal studies should explain to the patients in the Duke trials why the world would be better off without animal research. If they did so, the public could finally see the inhumanity of their humane-sounding demands.
Frankie L. Trull is the president of the Foundation for Biomedical Research.