Research Serving Human Needs

Vitamins: In 1908, as researchers around the world searched for mysterious “factors” that promoted health, UW-Madison biochemist E.V. McCollum began studying nutrition in rats, and soon discovered vitamin A, opening up the field of nutrition science and leading to UW-Madison’s continuing world leadership in vitamin D research, which has likewise relied on animal studies. Vitamin A deficiency is the leading cause of preventable blindness around the world, and vitamin D is now being explored for its role in preventing multiple diseases.

Transplant technology: A fluid called “UW Solution,” developed at UW-Madison in 1986 with heavy reliance on animal research, reduces organ damage before transplant. Campus researchers continue improving UW Solution, which has become a standard storage medium for transplant surgery. In a very direct way, transplant recipients worldwide owe their lives to Wisconsin animal research.

Fetal alcohol syndrome: Researchers on campus have created several animal models of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, which damages intelligence and behavior in 2 to 5 percent of American babies. A recent study in rats showed that alcohol’s damage is especially acute when the animals have inadequate levels of iron, suggesting one way to control a major cause of prenatal brain injury.

Stem cells: Embryonic stem cells, derived first in monkeys at the Wisconsin National Primate Research Center and then in humans, are a UW-Madison discovery that has revolutionized many aspects of modern biology. Biologists worldwide are using human and primate embryonic stem cells to study cancer, development, heart disease, diabetes and spinal-cord repair. Stem cells serve as “test beds” to study the benefits and possible side effects of drugs. The newer induced pluripotent stem cell, co-discovered at UW-Madison, has already been developed into dozens of disease models in lab dishes. These technologies promise to accelerate medical progress while reducing our need for lab animals.

Influenza: Researchers in many UW-Madison labs are working to understand the different influenza viruses, with heavy reliance on several animal models. These researchers have made major advances related to the fearsome 1918 influenza epidemic, the threatened H5N1 “bird” flu, and the current H1N1 pandemic. Influenza research at UW-Madison is leading to new vaccines antiviral drugs that could help blunt a worldwide pandemic.

Cervical cancer: Mouse research from the UW School of Medicine and Public Health, published in fall 2009, shows that two drugs reverse cervical cancer and even pre-cancerous lesions. Cervical cancer annually afflicts about 500,000 women around the world, killing half of them. Because both drugs are FDA-approved, the research could move quickly into the clinic.

HIV/AIDS: UW-Madison researchers are using non-human primates to

  • investigate novel approaches to an AIDS vaccine
  • understand why some people survive long-term HIV infections without symptoms
  • target proteins made by ancient viral genes hidden in the human genome, which become active during an HIV infection.

HIV and the other retroviruses can integrate into the human genome using the enzyme reverse transcriptase. UW-Madison scientist Howard Temin shared the 1975 Nobel Prize for discovering a key to HIV called reverse transcriptase, based on his research with monkeys, horses, chickens and mice.

Fatal animal-human brain diseases: UW-Madison researchers have pioneered the study of brain-wasting diseases caused by infectious proteins, or prions. In the 1980s, before the outbreak of mad cow disease, a UW-Madison scientist identified prion disease in state mink farms. When chronic wasting disease (CWD) appeared in the state’s deer herd, our researchers

  • used radio collars to measure how fast deer are spreading the disease to new areas
  • studied the survival and potential spread of prions at landfills and wastewater treatment plants
  • examined how prion diseases can “jump” to other species
  • explored how binding to soil makes prions more infectious.

These studies provide a scientific basis for the difficult decisions that may be needed to prevent CWD from spreading through Wisconsin’s entire deer herd or jumping to other animals, including humans.