How Modelling Disease Could Help Us Understand MS

Eric Downer
Written by
Eric Downer

Let me be clear. I know this is a sensitive topic. The thought of testing drugs on animals is downright unacceptable for some. And in no way am I trying to advocate one-way or the other. As always, our aim here at Living Like You is to present the facts so that the MS community is informed, and to let you draw your own conclusions after that.

Whether we like it or not, the truth is every major medical success achieved over the past century, for humans and animals, is in part the result of the use of animal models. From the discovery of antibiotics and anaesthetics, to the development of anti-depressants and vaccines for crippling diseases like smallpox and polio, to the successful development of organ transplants and bypass surgery – laboratory animals have been essential to medical research.

When it comes to multiple sclerosis (MS), researchers have very limited access to active MS tissue samples on which to test possible treatments. For obvious safety reasons, human studies are much more restricted compared to studies in animal models. In fact, many regulatory bodies such as the U.S. Federal Drug Administration (FDA) require drugs to be tested on animal models before being cleared to enter an in-human trial. Despite these requirements, many researchers and institutions are seeking ways to limit and reduce the use of animals in research.

Finding alternatives to animal models

Alternative approaches to animal models are becoming more widely used. For example, complex mathematical and computational models allow researchers to represent biological processes, and can now be used to provide detailed comparisons of healthy and diseased states. Another common research approach is in vitro testing. Under such investigation, cells, organs or tissues (from both humans and animals) are kept alive and investigated outside of the living organism. This approach can provide real insight into the cellular processes being played out in disease. Although these alternatives reduce animal use and can give clear details on the events driving disease, they often do not fully represent the complete range of physiological response that occurs in the human body.

The unsung heroes behind MS research

How exactly can research using an animal model inform the MS scientist, and the broader MS community? Ultimately we are motivated to understand the function of the human body, in both the normal healthy condition, and how this function changes in MS. An animal model can provide a diverse array of information on the function of cells and tissues within our bodies, in addition to providing information on bodily processes. By capturing information in a mouse, this information can often add to our understanding of the human condition.

Ensuring “happy” mice

From a scientist’s perspective, undertaking research in different animal species (predominantly mice and rats) comes with many years of training, and a lengthy process of licensing and ethical approval procedures. Animal welfare procedures are always adhered to in the strictest manner, and at the forefront of what we do. Not only is improving animal welfare essential from an ethical perspective, but recent studies show that increasing animal well-being provides more predictive results. For example, enriching lab mouse environments with natural activities, e.g. running wheels and nesting materials, leads to “happy” mice with less stress.

Translating research into treatments

Many of the drugs that are currently used to target MS, or that are in clinical development and perhaps in imminent use, have initially undergone rigorous scientific testing in mouse models designed specifically for MS – the most common being an EAE model (experimental autoimmune encephalomyelitis). It is in this model that many MS therapies have started their long journey to the clinic i.e. where they been tested and validated. If a potential therapy shows promise in the rodent model of MS, in terms of blunting the development of the symptoms of disease in the mouse, this drug may be selected for controlled testing in humans.

Of course, modelling human disease in animal models comes with inherent weaknesses, as translating promising findings from mouse models to human disease is a big step, but such research is often the first big step in the successful development of a therapy for the MS patient.

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