Monday, December 28, 2009

You're an Animal!

The Muppet Show Season 2

Did you ever look around at your family and think, "I canNOT believe I'm related to these people"? Even if you really love your family, sometimes the vast differences between you and your nearest and dearest can make you question your genetic gene pool.

In fact, your cousin Wilfred's* behavior at the dinner table might make it easier to believe that we share quite a large number of genes with other animals - about 97% of our genes match those of primates and approximately 94% match those found in rats and mice.

Don't believe me? Look at the structures that make up an animal body, and those that make up our human parts. We all have kidneys, stomach, livers, etc., and these organs all do the same thing across species. It may be hard to imagine, but it's true. Trust me.

Our similarities to other mammals means we can ask a lot of questions about human health, using animals as models. The vast majority of research (~95%) is done in rodents (rats or mice). The remaining 5% of research animals includes primates, sheep, pigs, cats, dogs, and invertebrates. Each of these models is carefully selected for the research question at hand. All of these animals have similarities, and differences, with humans that make them an ideal model to use in asking different health-related questions.

For example, let's revisit Dr. Jay and his interest in studying heart disease. Having realized that there is previous research showing that a certain protein in the body is higher in people who suffer from heart disease, he can increase or decrease the levels of this protein in an animal model and see if it affects the animal's heart. If it does, then he can begin to work on a way to control the levels of this protein, and in doing so, he might have found a new protein to target to decrease heart disease in humans.

Using an animal model that has the same cardiovascular system, Dr. Jay is one step closer to discovering a new therapy for humans.

Since we’ve started talking about animal research, I’d like to pause for a minute because I understand the concerns that some of you may have about using animals in research. Actually, I almost chose an alternate career because I wasn’t sure that I agreed with animal-based research. Tomorrow I'll share my story on the topic, and what I’ve learned over the years as a research scientist.

*Another unfortunate imaginary direct relation of Great Uncle Milton and Great Aunt Mildred.

This is Part 3 of 13 in our From Ideas to Treatments series.
Part 1 - From Ideas to Treatments
Part 2 - Basic Research: It Starts with an Idea
Part 3 - You're an Animal!
Part 4 - Can I care about animals and do research too?
Part 5 - Regulations for Animal Research
Part 6 - Clinical Research Trials
Part 7 - Patient Safety in Clinical Trials: IRB Approval
Part 8 - Recruitment
Part 9 - Health Disparities in Clinical Research
Part 10 - A Brief History of Inclusion Policies
Part 11 - Breaking News: Women and Men are Different
Part 12 - Including Minorities in Clinical Trial Research
Part 13 - Bringing From Ideas to Treatments Home

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