And the award for Best Supporting Role in a Medical Drama goes to…

With the Oscars fast approaching, FBR is recognizing two special supporting actors that have played outstanding roles in the ongoing medical drama of human and animal health advancement: the rat and the mouse. Together, rats and mice make up approximately 95% of animals in research and share about 97% of our DNA. This makes them ideal models for studying human disease.

Rats have been essential to medical studies for more than 200 years and today remain indispensable  in biomedical research. It wasn’t long after scientists began building mazes to test rat intelligence that they began breeding them to produce special characteristics. In 2004, researchers sequenced the genome of the brown Norway rat and, since then, scientists have been studying genetically modified rats to conduct more precise and targeted research that was previously impossible.

FBR’s nomination for Best Supporting Role in a Medical Drama is not the first scientific award that has been bestowed upon rodents – according to FBR’s chart of animal models behind the Nobel Prize, rats and mice have been essential for much Nobel-winning medical research. This includes Drs. O’Keefe, May-Britt, and Moser’s 2014 ‘Discoveries of cells that constitute a positioning system in the brain (an inner GPS)’. As part of their research into the brain’s “inner GPS,” Dr. John O’Keefe recorded the brain signals of a rat walking around a room. The data revealed how the brain creates a mental map of cells that correspond to locations and allows us to keep track of our location.

Nobel-PrizeThe Nobel Prize (Courtesy: Wikipedia)

Rodent models have been an essential part of research into the use of human embryonic stem cells to treat spinal cord injuries. Based on years of work, particularly in rat models of spinal cord injury, scientists have begun clinical trials into several stem cell therapies. In 2010, Balgrist University Hospital in Switzerland began human clinical trials with At a meeting of the American Spinal Injury Association in 2014, doctors reported gains in sensory function among patients receiving the treatment. Called Human Neural Stem Cells, these stem cells were first tested in a mouse model of spinal cord injury before benefiting patients in real world care.

Stem cell research using rodent models isn’t just limited to spinal cord injuries – stem cells can be used to repair damage caused by heart attacks or congestive heart failure. In a mouse model of heart attack, researchers from the National Human Genome Research Institute were able to inject bone marrow stem cells directly into the damaged area of the heart. Within 9 days of the treatment, 68% of the damage had been repaired leading to a greater survival rate for mice that had received the injection. Researchers at Columbia University performed a similar procedure using human stem cells transplanted into rats with heart damage. The human stem cells gave rise to new blood vessels and repaired damaged areas of the rats’ hearts. In order to bring this promising treatment to people in the near future, researchers are working with rats to better deliver the cells. A recent innovation that was tested in rats has increased the survival of transplanted cells from 12% to 73%, bringing the possibility of human benefits from this research that much closer.

figure92Heart muscle repair with adult stem cells (Credit: NIH)

Rodent research is also an essential component of emerging fields such as bioprinting.  There is now the potential of ‘printing’ biological tissue to create living tissue structures to replace injured or diseased tissue in patients. This concept has recently moved from the theoretical phase to the realm of possibility with the help of rats. Researchers at the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine bioprinted muscle tissue and implanted it into rats. After several weeks, the tissue was integrating well and even beginning to gain nerve function. The researchers then implanted bioprinted bone structures into the rats, where became a part of the rat’s body. This proof-of-concept means that patients who have lost parts of their bodies may be able to receive replacements in the near future.

bioprintingBioprinting muscle tissue (Courtesy: Wake Forest)

Rodents have made amazing contributions to human and animal health. This article only covers some of their contributions. Other areas of disease research that rodent models are essential to include: Alzheimer ’s disease, blindness, diabetes, muscular dystrophy, Fragile X syndrome, high cholesterol, HIV/AIDS, influenza, meningitis B, multiple sclerosis, radiation sickness, SARS, stroke, tuberculosis vaccination, tumor metastasis and many more. With the huge volume of advances that rodent models have made possible, perhaps these animals should be receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award.


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