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4 Animals That Changed Medical History

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4 Animals That Changed Medical History

Cate Misczuk

Updated: July 29, 2019    Published: July 24, 2019

Researched by licensed + unbiased insurance experts. Learn More

We all know that the research community often uses animals to research drugs, cures for diseases and other treatments that may be able to help heal us humans.

While many animals have been instrumental to medical advances throughout the years, there are a handful that stand out.

Here, we decided to highlight a few species that, in the course of history, have made us think differently about a human disease we were dealing with. Eventually they helped us find a cure or treatment.

Lions Helped Cure Rickets

Today, rickets seems like an antiquated sickness. And it mostly is, thanks to lions at London’s royal zoo.

The important connection was drawn by Dr. John Bland-Sutton, a famous surgeon who got his start conducting post-mortem exams on the animals that died in the London Zoological Gardens.

What Bland-Sutton astutely discovered was that rickets was “as common, or even more frequent, among wild animals in captivity than among children,” according to the US National Library of Medicine.

The lions at the zoo, in particular, were suffering greatly. Many cubs were dying of rickets, and Bland-Sutton noticed that both the captive lions and children with rickets were suffering from a lack of exercise, exposure to climate and poor diet.

The zoo then started implementing a new diet for the lions, moving away from hard-to-eat horse bones to goat-flesh and soft bones as well as tasty cod liver oil.

Doctors recognized rickets in lions before it was recognized in humans. Click To Tweet

Doctors in the medical community were intrigued to see the lions recover. Soon they came to realize that lack of fat and bone salts was the cause of rickets in humans, too. Lions eventually changed how we defined and cured rickets in humans.

Horseshoe Crabs Saved Biomedical Research

This one might sound vaguely familiar. That’s because horseshoe crab blood — which is distinctly blue in color — has revolutionized scientific research around the world.

Blue color comes from the fact that horseshoe crab blood uses hemocyanin to carry oxygen throughout the body -not hemoglobin like us. And what makes this blood truly instrumental to modern-day science is the fact that their blood has a special clotting agent called Limulus amebocyte lysate, or LAL.

Before LAL, the scientific community had almost no easy way of proving that a vaccine or a medical tool hadn’t been contaminated with bacteria. Often, they’d test their potentially contaminated products on rabbits and wait to see if symptoms arose.

What they found with horseshoe crab blood, though, was that when LAL was added to a device or vaccine, it clotted when it came in contact with bacteria.

This gave researchers a quick and simple way to test for dangerous contaminants and continue to do important biomedical research that’s advancing our health.

Horseshoe crab blood, at $60,000 per gallon, is vital for medical testing. A manufactured version of it is coming into use today. Click To Tweet

It’s also important to note that today, as growing concern mounts about harvesting blood from these wild creatures, a synthetic substitute has become available that’s actually derived from insects and works just the same.

Canines Proved the Pancreas is Linked to Diabetes

Diabetes is considered a manageable disease today. But for hundreds of years before, what caused diabetes was unclear.

In the 18th century, researchers were still looking into the root cause of diabetes. Thomas Cawley saw in autopsies that the pancreas was damaged in sufferers, but so were the kidneys and eyes.

It wasn’t for almost a hundred years, until Joseph von Mering and Oskar Minkowski used dogs to understand this theory, that we got a little bit closer to learning how to properly treat the disease.

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What Minkowski found was that dogs with pancreas damage began developing diabetes. For the first time, doctors could conclusively say that the pancreas was the producer of some sort of anti-diabetic factor. These dogs helped us learn about insulin and how it can be used to manage diabetes.

Wild Birds Showed Us How Malaria Spreads

Even though we have a malaria drug today, the infectious disease is still an epidemic in some areas of the world.

And before animals taught us how malaria was really transmitted, our treatment and prevention of the disease relied on an incorrect theory.

In fact, birds helped us discover the true spread of malaria. Previously, doctors thought mosquitoes transmitted it through the water supply.

It wasn’t until the late 19th century that it became clear wild birds, like crows, suffered from malaria very similarly to humans and would prove much easier to research. Piggybacking on other studies on mosquitoes and malaria at the time, Ronald Ross used birds in his experiments to understand just how the disease was transmitted.

Crows can get malaria too. The spread of malaria was a mystery, until it was studied with crows in the lab. Click To Tweet

What Ross found was that malaria was carried inside the stomach of the mosquito, and was eventually transmitted through their bite directly into the bloodstream of the birds they bit. When Ross looked at the birds blood, he could see the malaria organisms floating around — finally proving just how the disease spread. Once we understood how to counter malaria at the source, treatment and prevention started to fly by.

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