By Frankie L. Trull
Blind mice are famous in nursery rhymes—and maybe soon, in scientific laboratories. A team of Swiss scientists recently restored sight in blind lab mice by injecting new, light-sensing cells into their eyes. They’re working to develop a cure for acquired blindness in people.
Today, millions of mice are bred for medical research. Rodents make up about 95 percent of the research animals used to find cures for diseases like diabetes, HIV/AIDS, and Alzheimer’s. The findings from these studies help us to improve human medicine—and to take better care of our furry companions. When animal rights activists oppose the use of animals in medical research, they are downplaying the benefits such research brings to people and animals alike.
Mice have long been our most reliable model for medical research. As fellow mammals, mice share about 92 percent of the genes of humans. Our kidneys and hearts, for instance, are much the same as those of mice. Thanks to these similarities, mouse studies have played a pivotal role in medical progress—from the development of penicillin and vaccines to kidney transplants and cancer therapies.
And now mouse studies are bringing hope to the 21 million Americans who suffer from diminished eyesight. With the aging of the baby-boom generation, the United States is on the verge of a low-vision epidemic. More than 10 million Americans already have age-related macular degeneration (AMD), the leading cause of vision loss in the United States.
AMD damages and destroys central vision, which is critical for performing everyday tasks like reading, driving, or simply recognizing the faces of loved ones. According to Prevent Blindness America, the number of adults with low vision will double over the next 30 years. If this prediction holds true, many boomers could experience a devastating loss of independence as they grow older. Currently, there is no cure for AMD. Animal research—like the mouse study performed by the Swiss scientists—is a crucial step toward discovering potential treatments for humans.
The ability to restore sight may also help cats and dogs that suffer from progressive blindness. Given the biological and genetic similarities between humans and animals, medical advances that benefit people often benefit animals, too. In all, more than 80 medications and vaccines developed for humans are now being used to help animals as well. Like people, animals receive vaccines against deadly diseases such as rabies and tetanus. Animals are also prescribed antibiotics when ill and undergo the same cataract surgery as humans. Some pets are even given hearing aids for deafness.
Without animal research, none of these therapies would exist—for people or for animals. Animal rights activists argue that animal testing is inhumane. The scientists and researchers who work with laboratory animals are dedicated, compassionate professionals who want to heal and treat disease wherever it appears. Their work is strictly regulated, and no study is allowed to go forward if viable alternatives to using animals are available.
And without this research, the prognosis for millions of animals—not to mention people—would be grim, with shorter life expectancies and a poorer quality of life. Studies with mice may hold the cure for blindness—and for the many other diseases that each year rob millions of people and animals of life, vision, and comfort. If these much-needed advances are to come to fruition, we must recognize and support the humane use of animals in research.
Frankie L. Trull is president of the Foundation for Biomedical Research.