Animal research is critical to developing a Zika vaccine | Labs address pressing Zika questions about fetal effects, vaccine development | Re-engineered polio virus shows promise as powerful weapon against cancer
Scientists in Brazil, the epicenter of the devastating Zika virus outbreak, are investigating 5,000 potential cases of microcephaly in infants, and research suggests the pathogen may also cause meningoencephalitis and Guillain-Barre syndrome. Animal models have been critical to unraveling these questions, writes FBR President Frankie Trull, and researchers working with nonhuman primates are sharing data in real time, yielding a better understanding the virus and how to prevent it. "Animal research is behind virtually every medical treatment in existence. ... Now, the world needs a Zika vaccine. And while one is likely still some time away, animal research will be key to developing it," Trull writes.
Infant with microcephaly. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)
A suite of studies in animal models establishes the means by which the Zika virus alone causes birth defects in infants. Studies in mice found the virus in the brains of fetuses from infected dams and at particularly high levels in the placenta, providing evidence to support hypotheses that restricted blood flow may help explain the effects of infection. Infection with the virus was followed by a reduction in brain size, and researchers were able to document infection of similar cells in mice and humans. Another team has broken critical new ground for more rapid vaccine research by cloning the virus, and the work was validated in mice.
Glioblastoma is an aggressive, deadly form of brain cancer, but a new treatment using a genetically altered polio virus -- an approach that recently received FDA breakthrough status -- offers new hope to patients facing devastating odds. A team of Duke University researchers rendered the polio virus harmless to healthy cells but equipped it to attack tumor cells, triggering the patient's immune system to attack the cancer and potentially rendering it more vulnerable to chemotherapy. The same process has been shown to be effective in mice breast cancer models, and it may be applicable to other cancers as well. "I never want to give anyone false hope," said Dr. Darell Bigner, who runs Duke's Brain Tumor Center. "But I see all of the science coming together now."
California Institute of Technology scientists have demonstrated that an engineered adeno-associated virus known as AAV-PHP.B reliably crosses the blood-brain barrier of mice, and subsequent tests showed that virus could serve as a gene vector across the barrier. The team used the vector to deliver a gene encoding a fluorescent protein to the brains of mice and saw that it was integrated into most cells, with effects lasting up to a year. The technology could facilitate treatment of a variety of neurological disorders.
A genetic study of dogs with gliomas pinpointed three genes that may play a role in development of the deadly brain tumors, and those same sequences are found in the human genome. The team is now looking at the function of the genes and how they might contribute to the development of brain tumors in dogs and people.
Researchers report in the journal Science that REM sleep is essential for normal spatial memory formation, a function that has been long hypothesized but never before clearly demonstrated. The team used optogenetic techniques in mice to mute cells involved with memory formation during REM sleep. Mice in the test group forgot learned behaviors from the previous day, while control mice and those whose cells were silenced during other phases of sleep did not. Numerous important human diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's are characterized in part by sleep disruptions.
The drug rapamycin is used in human organ transplant patients and for treatment of some cancers, but researchers who have seen its effects in mice think it might also improve longevity. The drug has been tested for safety in 40 dogs, and researchers say they saw no significant side effects while documenting possible heart-health benefits in the dogs that participated. Funding for anti-aging research is sparse, but experts in the field say preventing age-related changes could help delay diseases associated with aging such as Alzheimer's and cancer.
Veterinarian Kurt Williams and his colleagues at Michigan State University's College of Veterinary Medicine discovered that pulmonary veno-occlusive disease occurs in dogs, according to a paper published in Veterinary Pathology. The disease, a severe type of pulmonary hypertension that causes death in people but can be treated with a lung transplant, has only been documented in humans until now. The discovery in dogs could help scientists better understand PVOD, potentially helping people with the condition, Williams noted.
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The Foundation for Biomedical Research (FBR) is the nation’s oldest and largest non-profit dedicated to improving human and animal health by promoting public understanding and support for biomedical research. Our mission is to educate people about the essential role animal research plays in the quest for medical advancements, treatments and cures for both people and animals.