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.

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.