Soul Awakened: The Beasts Who Helped Us Beat Leukemia


“Tag, you’re it!” is the last cheerful thing I remember my cousin, Kanika, saying before leukocytes invaded her sweet smile and replaced it with physical and emotional pain. Living on separate continents certainly distanced us geographically, but our personal connection as cousins was truly unbreakable. And at the tender age of six, we had thought her health would be just as strong. We had never been more wrong. Shortly after our family reunion in India, we received a call from my aunt and uncle. I waited for the regular routine of pass-the-phone-around-the-room so that I could tell Kanika the new joke I had just come up with. Surprisingly, the phone just stayed where it was this time. The phone didn’t move. My mom didn’t move. Everything froze, and even though I had seen it in the movies, this is the first time I was physically experiencing the paralyzing moment. They said that Kanika had been bruising, fatigued, and losing weight at an exponential rate, but they couldn’t find a reason behind it, so they took her to a nearby hospital to find an answer. The diagnosis: Leukemia. The odds of survival for children with leukemia were not high enough to guarantee that our little Kanika would even live to be a teenager. Initially, my family and I had panicked in preparing a mindset of potentially losing her, but research somehow assured me that my cousin’s inner strength combined with scientific milestones could save her.

Leukemia is a cancer of the blood cells that begins at the bone marrow. The role of the bone marrow is to create white blood cells, red blood cells, and platelets which fight infection, carry oxygen, and control bleeding respectively. Leukemia involves the formation of abnormal white blood cells which continue multiplying until the normal cells and platelets are crowded by the deficient ones. The image of Kanika’s white and red blood cells being suffocated by leukemia cells and overtaking her body’s ability to function properly was lugubrious for quite a while, but due to prior research performed on animals, there was a ray of hope.

In 1910, doctors were involved in researching safe storage and transfusion of sterile and compatible blood. After World War I, dogs, guinea pigs, and rabbits were tested on to see if blood can be transferred as long as the blood type matches. In the early 1970s, research on mice found that it is vital to destroy all malignant cells in order to get rid of cancer. Towards the latter half of the 1970s, testing on a sample of mice unraveled a drug to treat the most common form of leukemia. Between the late 1970s and early 1980s, scientists used pigs to improve diagnosis techniques through CAT scanning which showed organs of the body clear enough to treat. As the 20th century neared an end, a group of scientists in England researched on mice, rabbits, dogs, and monkeys to show that organs and tissues such as bone marrow could be transplanted between relatives.

Although many believe that animal research should be discontinued due to their cruel and inhumane treatment, this notion neglects the overwhelming benefits that stem from animal research for humans and animals alike. After realizing that there is truly no adequate alternative to testing a living whole-body system, laws were regulated to prevent brutal treatment of these animals. The Animal Welfare Act of 1966 enforces that minimum standards of care are provided for certain animals. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, animal testing is advantageous to animals themselves; if vaccines were not tested on animals, many of them would have died from fatal cases of rabies, tetanus, and anthrax. Furthermore, animal testing is also a key factor in saving endangered species from extinction.

Personally, I hold animal research dear to my heart because the success rates from animal testing have been applied to my cousin’s battle with life. Due to the scientific efforts of Dr. Lloyd Law and the sacrifice of animals he tested, my cousin is a cancer survivor. The chemotherapy sessions, CAT scans, blood transfusions, and bone marrow transplant that Kanika endured were surely a painful struggle, however, today she is able to wake up to the sun rising every day. Anatole France once said, “Until one has loved an animal, a part of one's soul remains unawakened.” Kanika’s health is replenished, youth is rejuvenated, and soul is awakened because she has won the battle against cancer. And she knows she couldn’t have done it alone.

Neurobiology Hamm Laboratory at Barrow Neurological Institute

Interning in the Neurobiology Lab under guidance of Dr. Hamm, Dr. Vladimir, and Derek was such a remarkable experience. From the very first day, I was making anesthetics and preparing for a sterilized, terminal surgery. On the first surgery day itself, I had the opportunity to create sutures in the rat’s skin and extract portions of the spinal cord. After being familiarized with the technology measuring action potentials of motor neurons, my partners and I were able to understand the physiological impact of a spinal cord injury.  Over the weeks, we interacted with the rats’ recovery process by monitoring their hind limb and forelimb coordination through video analysis and experimental observations.

With a variation between surgery days, dissection days, experimentation, and video analysis, this internship was truly an enriching learning experience. Being able to participate in hands-on lab activities made for one of the most valuable summers.

I would like to thank SwAEBR, Dr. Hamm, Dr. Vladimir, Derek, and all the interns who helped me with this memorable opportunity which inspired me to explore physiological aspects to medicine.

Following her internship, Anivarya completed a research paper. It is available to read at the following link: Locomotion and Motor Neuron Plasticity after Incomplete Spinal Cord Injury