2009 Winning Essays
My Little Saviors: Biomedical Research and Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia
"Few topics in biomedical research elicit the emotional response and frank overreaction as does the use of live animals in biomedical research...[But] to prohibit the use of live animals in biomedical research would so drastically reduce the flow of new medications into the hands of physicians of this country and the world as to represent, in my opinion, an unforgivable biomedical disaster for generations to come" - Charles Giles Smith
Smith’s powerful statement could not resonate on a deeper level for me and for children with similar conditions to mine. Animal research is without a doubt a divisive topic, but I am living proof that is saves lives. On October 17, 2005, I was diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL) at the age of 14. My perfect world, and my parents’ perfect world for that matter, had been shattered. But by the end of that day, I would learn that ALL was not something to be too afraid of; my oncologist reassured me that I had high chances of survival, and I would only have to endure three years of chemotherapy. I have not only survived but also thrived. After finishing the intense chemo phase in May 2006, I returned to playing competitive soccer and continued to excel in school. I finally finished chemo this past January. Thus, the pressing question that one may ask is how; how have I been able to live a normal, healthy lifestyle while surviving cancer? The answer is simple. My treatment plan and the efficient cytotoxic drugs–which have both arisen through decades of research using live animals – annihilated my cancer and, coupled with a never-dying determination, have let me enjoy life to the fullest.
Sadly, the odds of survival for children with leukemia were not always high. Indeed, even as recently as 25 years ago, nine out of ten children with ALL died, as opposed to the eight out of ten chance of surviving today. The former statistic would be erased by some very important animals and scientists. In the 1960's Dr. Howard Skipper and his co-workers at the Southern Research Institute discovered invaluable information through cancer research on animals. Skipper ascertained that it only took one leukemia cell to kill a healthy mouse. Furthermore, the scientists showed that using chemotherapy, the malignant cells were reduced by a proportion of their total number. But, Skipper noticed that if the chemotherapeutic methods were overused, the mouse would die of the side effects on other internal organs. This revolutionary breakthrough was applied to ALL patients with surprisingly improved results. Thus, without the use of these animals, Skipper and his colleagues would not have had the option to make such discoveries because testing on humans was out of the question.
Animals have played an even greater role more recently in the development of effective drugs, treatment plans, and early diagnostic techniques. In the early 1970's, a researchers found that in addition to the necessity to destroy all malignant leukemia cells, mice treated early on had a greater chance of survival. The same principle was easily applicable to humans. But early diagnosis meant nothing without the right tools. Two chemotherapy drugs which I have taken extensively were developed using animal research. The first, methotrexate, happened to prolong the life of rats and mice with leukemia and was quickly used by Sidney Farber to treat children with leukemia. The second common ALL drug is vincristine, a less powerful chemo that I have taken a lot. Vincristine first was found to depress bone marrow production in animals, a function vital for minimizing the production of cancer cells in patients with ALL. Nowadays, genetically modified mice are the subjects of research on gene therapy and its potential use to fight all leukemia. In conclusion, the use of animals in leukemia research is continuous because even though the survival rates have increased, there is still room for improvement.
By no means should animal research be stopped. Nowadays there are so many precautions that prevent the inhumane treatment of these invaluable test subjects that there should be no reason to argue against it. There are children and adults with more serious cases of cancer than mine, cases that researchers have not yet gotten their hands around. Without biomedical research using animals, researchers would have a far smaller opportunity to better the existing treatment plans and drugs, to make life happier yet still kill off the cancer of kids and adults alike. Without biomedical research using animals, there would be a nine in ten chance that I would not be here today.
Chris Interned in the Behavioral Genetics Lab at Barrow Neurological Institute
What an experience this summer has been. Instead of working at a restaurant or department store like my friends, I was an intern in the Behavioral Genetics Lab at Barrow Neurological Institute. Under the guidance of Dr. Treiman, Dr. Scheck of the Neuro-Oncology Lab, and other interns, I learned how cutting edge neurology research is being carried out.
From my very first day, I was thrown right into the mix with other high school interns learning how to perform various scientific experiments in preparation for a project. I learned what things were, where they were put, how they were used, and how they were cleaned. Gradually I became more and more proficient until I and the other interns were told about our project.
After learning the methods of carrying out protein isolations, Bradford Assays, Western Blots, and Two-dimensional Gel Electophoresis, my partners and I were given the task of analyzing protein expression in genetically engineered mice that are more susceptible to epileptic seizures because they have a gene called KCNA1 knocked out. Our findings will serve as a baseline for further experiments analyzing the relationship between KCNA1, epileptic seizures, and post-traumatic stress.
I cannot say how valuable this hands-on lab experience has been for me. As a rising senior interested in majoring in Biomedical Engineering, I have a vibrant interest for cutting edge research. I have learned more this summer than I could ever learn in a chemistry class or a biology class in high school.
I would like to thank SwAEBR, Dr. Treiman, Dr. Scheck, and all the others who helped me along the way for providing me with this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
A Cure in Sight
When I was a little kid I wanted a dog. Not just any dog. It had to be a purebred Old English Sheepdog. There was something irresistible about this big, shaggy dog with its eyes concealed by a jungle of long gray and white hair. I had to have one. I pestered my parents until one day, my mother told me what an eight-year-old couldn’t have known. We couldn’t afford it. Instead, my parents took me to the pound to look for a dog we could afford. I was grumpy as we moved from cage to cage. Each dog was cute, but it wasn’t an Old English Sheepdog. Then I saw Lady. She wasn’t a sheepdog, but she was shaggy, and she had the most trusting brown eyes I had ever seen. I fell in love.
At home, she was the perfect pet. She licked me awake every morning and followed me to the door when I left for school. When I returned home, she was always waiting. She had become a member of our family, and we all loved her. Then, one day a few years later, her right eye began to ooze and she was in real pain. We took her to the veterinarian and were shocked to learn that she had glaucoma. A fluid called aqueous humor was building up in her eye causing increased pressure that damaged her optic nerve. She required immediate treatment or she would go blind in that eye. The vet prescribed three medications including xalatan, a drug also used to treat glaucoma in humans. If these drugs could reduce the pressure in her eye, they could save her vision. For more than two years, we followed a strict regimen of treatment; we administered her medicines three times a day and never missed a dose. In time, we began to feel confident that these drugs would save her eye. Then, suddenly, they began to fail. In a few weeks, Lady went blind in her right eye, and it had to be removed. I was devastated, but that was nothing compared to how I felt when the vet said that Lady could develop glaucoma in her other eye and go completely blind. However, she added, we should be optimistic because there was plenty of research being done on glaucoma.
She was right. When I began to look into it, what surprised me was that much of the research was conducted using animals. In fact, xalatan was developed through research with rabbits and monkeys. This research proved that xalatan lowers intraocular pressure by increasing the drainage of fluid. It has been particularly beneficial to the 70 million people suffering from glaucoma.
Currently, reducing pressure in the eye is the primary therapy for glaucoma. However, there are exciting new possibilities as researchers are now expanding their approaches. For example, scientists at Duke University are testing a number of new methods to control this disease. Dr. Gonzalez is genetically altering pig eyes and then testing the drainage of fluid. His main focus is to find ways to prevent damage to the drainage cells caused by oxygen or oxidative stress. Dr. Stuart McKinnon is trying another approach. He hopes to protect ganglion cells of the optic nerve so that they won’t be damaged even if pressure does increase. He is using viruses to deliver protein-producing genes to protect these cells in the eyes of rodents. Another Duke scientist, Dr. Rao, if focusing on the cytoskeleton of cells around the fluid drain. He is using pig eyes to find molecules in these cells that he can target with drugs to increase the drainage of aqueous humor. Their colleague, Dr. Allingham, is taking a different direction; he is concentrating on the genetic factors that cause susceptibility to glaucoma hoping that early detection can lead to preventative treatment.
While this work continues at Duke, the AKC Canine Health Foundation is currently doing glaucoma research that focuses on dogs. The foundation collected DNA samples from various breeds and is using them along with gene-mapping technologies to search for the positions of mutations that cause glaucoma. If successful, they intend to give DNA tests to trainers of these breeds and to find out if the same genes in other breeds also have the glaucoma-causing mutations.
All of this research has given me hope. If one day Lady does develop glaucoma in her good eye, one of these scientists may come up with a way to save her sight.
Molly Interned in the Behavioral Genetics Lab at Barrow Neurological Institute
This summer I worked in the Behavioral Genetics lab at Barrow Neurological Institute doing epilepsy research. I have to say that when I started my internship I was very anxious. I watched other more experienced interns doing protein isolation, RC/DC assays, and Bradford assays, not to mention 2-dimensional gel electrophoresis to analyze protein expression and western blots to identify specific proteins. It all seemed so complicated and I was sure that I would never be able to do it.
But I was wrong. I was soon working alongside these interns doing all of the procedures, and more importantly, understanding them. I initially began learning various lab techniques in the Neuro-Oncology lab, and then started a research project on epilepsy with interns in my own lab. Our project was a study of knock-out mice that were missing a potassium channel gene, KCNA1, and as a result, experienced recurrent epileptic seizures. We compared brain tissue of wild type, heterozygous, and homozygous (knock-out) mice to find differences in protein expression that would show a link between the absent gene and early seizure development, as well as a possible relationship between this gene and other genes.
What was particularly exciting about our research was that it was not just an educational exercise, but was part of an original, ongoing study of epilepsy. I was actually in the real world of research. So real, in fact, it is possible that in the future I might even be able to contribute to a research paper on the findings of this study. What made my experience at Barrow even more rewarding were the people. I was working with other high school students who shared my interests and enthusiasm. That was exciting. Some of us were total strangers when we met, but it didn’t take us long to get to know each other and really start to work together as a unit. A number of these interns had been working at Barrow for a while and already knew the ropes. They were all so willing to share what they knew and to help me catch up to the point where I felt at home. I really appreciated their generosity.
I particularly want to thank Dr. Treiman and Dr. Scheck for their guidance and support. Working at Barrow was a rare opportunity for a 17-year-old. It gave me a real feel for what I hope will turn out to be my future career. I am looking forward to continuing our project in the fall and throughout the next year.
Finally, I want to thank SwAEBR for making all of this possible.
A Memory, a Gift for Life
At the time of my birth, only one of my grandparents was still living. Although my Nana lived in another state and I only got to see her a few times, I still am so very grateful. Back when my mom was still in high-school, Nana was diagnosed with breast cancer. The fact that she was not only able to live long enough to finish raising her own children, but to also meet all of her grandchildren, is mostly due to the great advances in research as well as her incredible constitution to live. Progress that would never have been possible if not for the testing of medication on animals, this is why I support the practice of vivisection. I have been raised as an only child, and my cat Edwina, has been like the same-aged sibling I always longed for as well as my best childhood-friend. I make this statement to ensure that my views are not misconstrued as someone who does not love nor appreciate animals.
Thirty-five years ago only about seventy-five percent of women diagnosed with breast cancer survived their disease at least five years and Tamoxifen, an effective anti-cancer medication was yet to be approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Today, only ten percent of women diagnosed with breast cancer will receive a prognosis of less than 5 years left to live, and Tamoxifen has been long since approved and endorsed as instrumental in treating women with estrogen receptor-positive breast cancer. Thanks to the use of animal testing, receiving a diagnosis of cancer is no longer synonymous with a death warrant.
Taber’s Dictionary defines vivisection as the cutting of or operation upon a living animal for physiological investigation and the study of disease. In the early 1900's, animal testing started and a big emphasis was testing the effects of caffeine on animals. An exact cure for cancer is yet to discovered, yet thanks to the discoveries made possible by using animal testing, and patients are afforded a better quality of life along with more promising outcomes.
Supporters on both sides are passionate about their view and substantiation on the pros and cons of using animals for testing to further advance medicine. I personally feel that although this method of medical research is not perfect, it is very justified and I would like to take this opportunity to plea my case to people who condemn this practice. One of the most vocalized arguments against using animals in this manner is the fact that it is considered to be cruel and unjust punishment. In response to this concern, The Animal Welfare Act was passed and serves to regulate the use of many animals including but not limited to dogs and cats. Furthermore, it stands to reason that much of the human diseases/conditions that are in need of research are the same diseases/conditions that often afflict animals as well. This practice that is often criticized, actually has a duo purpose and no matter how it is argued, both populations benefit. The only way to truly gauge the outcome a medication will have on a human is to be able to test it on a living organism. In some instances human subjects can be utilized for the purpose of research, but depending on the unknown adverse effects, it is not always ethical to expose a human subject to a potentially life-threatening result. Yet the focus remains on how animal-testing is cruel and unjust and how this population is sacrificed solely for the betterment of the human population. Nothing could be further from the truth; both species stand to gain from this type of research.
Evidence gathered by scientists show that cell growth technology is a cheap way of cultivating cells for research, therefore, reducing the dependency on animal testing. Until this alternative testing is refined and sufficient to meet the needs to continue advancing and surpassing medical milestones, we have to continue to rely on what we have. My only remembrance of Nana is her making me oatmeal one time, this is a memory I will forever cherish in my heart. An opportunity I owe to the many sacrifices, whether perfect or flawed, that have helped provide hope for many, in a time of desperation.
Claire Interned at University of Arizona, Down Syndrome Research Group
SwAEBR provided me with invaluable experience this summer. It was my pleasure to be accepted as a research assistant by the Down Syndrome Research Group (DSRG), at the University of Arizona. This organization is committed to furthering the understanding of cognitive challenges faced by persons afflicted with Down syndrome (DS). Heading the program is Regents Professor, Dr. Nadel, who is world renowned for his expertise regarding cognition in persons with DS. This program at University of Arizona, works in conjunction with other research centers including programs at Johns Hopkins and Emory University. Some of the pursuits taking place at this time are variability in cognitive function in children with DS, the development of Alzheimer’s disease in patients with DS, the early development of language skill in children with DS as well as the effect of sleep problems on cognitive outcomes of patients with DS.
Dr. Edgin, Principle Investigator, has served as my main mentor during my internship. I would also like to acknowledge Jenne and Gina, for guiding me and supporting me during my time at DSRG.
Some of the assignments I have been given include learning to administer cognitive exams, learning about various methods of behavioral management as well as subject recruiting. Thanks to DSRG, I even got to attend my first medical conference this summer. In addition to my summer experience, I plan to do my Honor’s Internship with DSRG. Dr. Edgin has done an excellent job of setting up a structured path of experiences for me, that will be helpful for my future career.
I would like to thank SwAEBR for this incredible honor. There is no doubt in my mind that the entries were impressive and the decision was tough, thank you for choosing mine.
Finally, Dr. Edgin, thank you for believing in me and to all of the incredible staff at DSRG, for accepting me and contributing to my professional and academic growth.
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