Breathtaking Break Throughs in Asthma Research


A stranger would never guess my friend Catrina has asthma. She plays three varsity sports, sings along to entire musicals without losing her breath, and overall leads an active, nonstop life. Because of the incredible advancements in asthma treatment, Catrina seems practically indistinguishable from someone without asthma. Even I have never seen her reach for her inhaler. It is only because of our close friendship that I know she takes medicine to control her asthma and frequently visits an allergist. How has asthma treatment come so far? The use of animals in asthma research has lead to many groundbreaking discoveries that have benefited asthma sufferers like Catrina. Early asthma studies relied on animal research, and so does the current research that develops the kind of new medicines that Catrina uses today.


Asthma is defined by the National Institutes of Health as a “chronic lung disease that inflames and narrows the airways”, with symptoms of “recurring periods of wheezing, tightness, shortness of breath, and coughing”. Different antigens can elicit the immune system reaction that sets off asthma. It is often necessary for researchers to study asthma using living subjects in order to examine these symptoms and the response to treatment. As no animal other than humans naturally has asthma, most test subjects must undergo sensitization to an antigen. Guinea pigs were frequently used to model asthma in early studies because of their natural sensitivity to substances that trigger asthma in humans. In response to allergens, both human and guinea pig immune systems release IgE, an antibody that causes an allergic reaction. This is an important similarity because asthma can be caused by an allergy when the subsequent released IgE triggers airway constriction.


A major breakthrough in asthma research occurred in 1979 using cells from a mouse’s mast cell tumor (white blood cells) and a guinea pig’s ileum. Scientists Murphy, Hammarstrom, and Samuelsson conducted research into leukotrienes, chemicals which we now know can contribute to inflammation during an allergy attack. The researchers brought the mouse cells into contact with ionophore, which affects white blood cells, to encourage the cells to produce what they called a “slow reacting substance” (SRS). They found this SRS to also be a leukotrienes compound. The addition of this resulting substance to the guinea pig ileum caused the ileum to contract. This research into inflammation caused by leukotrienes lead to the development of Leukotriene Receptor Antagonists (LTRAs). LTRAs, oral asthma drugs that were also created using animal research, prevent leukotrienes from causing asthma symptoms. LTRAs were a significant advance in asthma treatment that involved animal research from their inception to their invention.


In the process of FDA approval for a new drug, preclinical trials using animals must be conducted before moving on to human trials for safety reasons. One of Catrina’s current asthma medications, omalizumab, underwent such an approval process. Omalizumab is an antibody used by allergic asthma sufferers who experience persistent symptoms. Omalizumab’s preclinical testing used monkey subjects to investigate the effects of the drug. People with allergic asthma have abnormally high IgE levels. The response of monkey IgE to omalizumab is very similar to that of human IgE, making monkeys ideal test subjects. It was shown that omalizumab worked by enjoining itself to IgE, therefore preventing IgE from joining its receptors and causing the inflammatory process. Because of animal research, they discovered that omalizumab could cause a shortage of blood platelets if a certain dosage is taken. With this knowledge, researchers determined that humans would avoid this side effect by taking a lesser amount of omalizumab. Now, omalizumab safely helps people like Catrina reduce their IgE levels and control their allergic asthma.


From past to present, animals have proven themselves to be intrinsic in asthma research. They have not only helped scientists to better understand asthma, but also to develop effective treatments. Asthma presents us with an example of how animal research helps so many people in ways we may not be able to see. Indirectly, the animals used in research have allowed people like my friend Catrina to live better lives. It is now possible for an outsider to never notice Catrina suffers from asthma. While this is amazing, the relative invisibility of her condition also presents a potential danger. It is important we not overlook how she got to a state where there are so few noticeable signs of her condition. The contributions of animals to asthma research have given Catrina and so many others the ability to breathe easier.

Neurobiology Hamm Laboratory at Barrow Neurological Institute


High school students usually spend their summers catching up on sleep and vacationing. Because of SwAEBR’s generous essay contest program, I got the chance to spend my summer doing something rare for a 17 year old: participating in real-world, impactful neurobiology research.


As an intern in the Hamm Lab at Barrow Neurological Institute, I helped to conduct research that dealt with the properties and organization of spinal neurons post spinal cord injury. During my time at the lab, we also looked to find out how the introduction of exercise can affect coordinated movement. I was immediately included in the lab and taught how I could contribute to such an important project.


I had a seemingly endless amount of amazing experiences: I performed laboratory work on a daily basis, attended neuroscience conferences, and discussed scientific papers. I was introduced to laboratory equipment like autoclaves and pH probes that I had never seen before in a biology or chemistry class. Every week, I helped facilitate and film the experiment’s locomotion trials. With my fellow interns, I would later analyze these videos to discover patterns and potential improvements in locomotion.


I was incredibly fortunate to learn so much this summer about the process of scientific research. The knowledge I have gained is truly invaluable and I am so grateful for being selected for this opportunity. My thanks to SwAEBR, Dr. Hamm, Dr. Turkin, Derek O’Neill, and my fellow interns for such an amazing experience.