What medical developments were made possible only because of animal experiments?

Mouse offspring
Image: Universität Zürich

Nearly all medicines available today have been developed with the help of animal experimentation. This excludes homeopathic products, for which however, neither efficacy nor safety need to be demonstrated. Thus, millions of patients benefit from the results of research involving animal testing. For example, the discovery of antibiotics, insulin, vaccines or Heparin (a "blood thinner") and the development of organ transplantations, surgical techniques or implants are all attributable to animal experiments.

Many people are not aware of the fact that illnesses such as poliomyelitis were major health concerns in previous decades, and were only resolved through research, which also included animal experiments, and the vaccines that resulted from it.

Almost 80 percent of children diagnosed with leukaemia can now be cured, as a result of research and the use of animal experiments.

Since 1900, the Nobel Prize for physiology and medicine has been awarded almost 70 times to researchers whose ground-breaking insights were likewise attained with the help of animal tests. They include for example the discovery of insulin and Penicillin, the mechanisms of the AIDS infection or insight into the immune system or the brain.

Are there any examples of important medicines where animal testing played an important role?

Studies involving animals played a role in most medicines. Two prominent examples are Penicillin, whose discovery lead to the development of antibiotics, and insulin. The treatment of diabetes became possible only after more knowledge became available about its role in the regulation of the blood glucose level.

Penicillin

When looking at a petri dish contaminated with mould, Scottish scientist Alexander Fleming in 1928 discovered that bacteria did not survive in the area where the fungi were growing. This was the beginning of the success story of antibiotics, and more specifically, the active ingredient Penicillin. The first experiments investigating the therapeutic use of Penicillin were carried out with mice in 1940. Thanks to Penicillin, they survived an otherwise lethal infection with streptococci. The conduct of these kinds of experiments with humans is impossible for ethical reasons. Thus, mice (or other animals that are easy to keep) used as laboratory animals were indispensable for demonstrating the efficacy of Penicillin. One year later, it was used in a human for the first time, and since that time, antibiotics have become an integral component of both human and veterinary medicine.

Insulin

The effect of insulin for the treatment of low glucose levels was discovered in experiments with dogs. For a long time, insulin was collected from the pancreas of slaughtered cattle and pigs. Nowadays, it is produced predominantly with genetically modified yeasts and bacteria. Insulin is likewise used successfully in veterinary medicine, for example, for the treatment of dogs and cats suffering from diabetes.

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