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Medical Milestones

Research involving animals during the last half century has led to many such breakthroughs, including the first clinical use of penicillin, pediatric heart transplantation, HIV treatments and surgical procedures to prevent stroke.

In biomedical laboratories around the world, animal-based research has been a linchpin in fighting ravaging illnesses such as polio, smallpox, diphtheria, cholera and measles. For example, in mid-2002, the World Health Organization announced the eradication of polio-the illness that crippled and immobilized millions during the first half of the 20th century-from Europe, North and South America and the Western Pacific. Today, the number of countries with indigenous polio has dropped to an all-time low of four.

This incredible achievement was made as a result of medical discoveries and advances from researchers worldwide, including Columbia microbiologist and polio expert Vincent Racaniello, who played a significant role. Twenty years ago, Dr. Racaniello created the very first mouse model to answer basic questions about how the polio virus causes the disease. In the process, Dr. Racaniello discovered that the polio virus travels to the brain from infected muscle cells through the axons of neurons-clarifying how the virus causes illness, and contributing substantially to the body of scientific knowledge about the disease.

Today's research involving animals continues to advance the fight against Alzheimer's disease, blindness, cystic fibrosis, diabetes, Huntington's disease, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's disease, spinal cord injury and stroke.

Animal-based medical research has led to many modern treatments that have:
  • protected millions of Americans with a high risk of heart attack, stroke or kidney failure, due to high blood pressure;
  • enabled hundreds of thousands of people disabled by stroke or head and spinal cord injuries to undergo beneficial rehabilitation techniques;
  • saved diabetics who could not survive without daily insulin injections;
  • prevented thousands of children and adults from contracting polio and rubella; and
  • protected newborns from developing cerebral palsy.
Like humans, animals benefit from many of these advances. Medical discoveries have given veterinarians therapies to treat diseases that once killed millions of animals each year. Vaccines for rabies, anthrax, certain types of encephalitis, and Rift Valley fever protect humans as well as animals, since these diseases are readily transmissible from animal species to humans.
“All modern heart surgery is based on animal research. Our techniques would never have been developed without animal-based research – for example, the heart-lung machine, which keeps patients alive during heart surgery. Animals continue to be vital to our research as our techniques and tools are continually refined.”

Dr. Eric A. Rose
Associate Dean for Translational Research and Chair of the Department of Surgery at Columbia University

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“Mice make it possible to hope for such breakthroughs (in diabetes research), because virtually everything we have found in a mouse, we have found in a human. Although we're separated by about 80 million years of evolution, genetically we're very similar. The only major differences are that the genes have been shuffled in the genome. At some point they will give us enough understanding to either prevent or stop this epidemic.”

Dr. Rudolph L. Leibel
Professor of Pediatrics at Columbia University and Co-Director of the Naomi Berrie Diabetes Center
© 2005 Columbia University