Wisconsin Discoveries

For more than 100 years, scientists at the University of Wisconsin–Madison have successfully used animal models to discover new knowledge to benefit people, animals and society. In modern biomedical research, animal models are indispensable, and studies with animals are almost always needed before testing can begin in humans. Below is a select list of Wisconsin discoveries that have direct application in medicine or other aspects of human and animal health and well being.

Human Health

  • Influenza
    With heavy reliance on animals, UW–Madison researchers are studying influenza viruses and have made major advances related to the deadly 1918 influenza epidemic, the threatened H5N1 bird flu, and the H1N1 pandemic. UW–Madison research is contributing to new methods for making vaccines and developing antiviral drugs as a first line of defense against the next pandemic.
  • COVID-19
    Studying transmission of the virus that causes COVID-19 in hamsters showed how a variant of SARS-CoV-2 became the dominant form of the virus around the world.
  • Intestinal cancer
    Researchers are studying mice at UW–Madison that form intestinal tumors, to understand how genes and environmental factors interact to cause colon cancer in humans. The studies are providing clues toward better therapies for this deadly disease, and may lead to a blood test for colon cancer screen that could replace colonoscopies.
  • Cervical cancer
    Mouse research from UW–Madison showed that two drugs reverse cervical cancer. Because both drugs are FDA-approved, the research could move quickly to the clinic and offer hope for the 500,000 women around the world who are diagnosed with cervical cancer each year.
  • Breast Cancer
    Cancer researchers at UW–Madison have developed the rats that lack genes that normally suppress breast cancer. These “knock-out rats” are a powerful tool for scientists to study the prevention and treatment of the most common cancer in American women.
  • HIV
    Based on research with monkeys, horses, chickens and mice, the late UW–Madison scientist Howard Temin shared the 1975 Nobel Prize for predicting and then discovering reverse transcriptase, a key enzyme in HIV and other retroviruses. The finding underpins much of modern molecular biology and biochemistry.
    UW–Madison researchers are using non-human primates to explore AIDS vaccines, understand why some people survive HIV without symptoms, and target stable proteins that become active during an HIV infection.
  • Brain imaging
    Using noninvasive imaging, UW–Madison researchers discovered how the primate brain processes fear and anxiety. The results show which areas of the brain can be targets for drugs and therapies for anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental illnesses.
  • Bone-marrow transplant
    Using techniques developed at UW–Madison and based on animal studies, the first U.S. bone marrow transplant was performed at UW Hospital. Such transplants are used to treat leukemia, aplastic anemia, Hodgkins disease, multiple myeloma, and immune deficiency and other disorders.
  • Zika virus
    Studying monkeys in the Wisconsin National Primate Research Center, UW–Madison scientists have described in detail the way Zika virus affects pregnancy, multiplying the odds of miscarriage and stillbirth and extending the length of infection. Their work also ruled out casual contact as a way to pass the virus between people, and showed that second infections with Zika or related dengue virus would not likely prove more dangerous.
  • Correcting growth abnormalities in children
    Wisconsin studies using animal models have generated a better understanding of how bones grow, especially early in development. These studies have helped orthopedic surgeons develop implants to correct growth-plate abnormalities in children.
  • Warfarin
    Wisconsin biochemist Karl Paul Link used rabbit models while developing the anti-coagulant warfarin, which remains a primary anti-clotting medicine and is one of the world’s most effective rodenticides.
  • Post-traumatic epilepsy
    Wisconsin researchers created genetically susceptible rats to study the prediction and prevention of post-traumatic epilepsy and post-traumatic stress disorder, both significant problems among veterans after head injuries.
  • Nervous system repair
    A study of cats discovered a surprising ability to repair the myelin sheath that insulates nerves and allows them to function normally. Myelin disorders play a role in many nerve diseases, including the common and sometimes fatal multiple sclerosis.
  • Transplant technology
    A fluid called the UW Solution, developed at UW–Madison in 1986 with heavy reliance on animal research, reduces organ damage before transplant. Campus researchers continue improving the UW Solution, which extends the shelf life of donated organs and is a standard tool in transplant surgery.
  • Fetal alcohol syndrome
    UW–Madison researchers have created animal models of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, which damages intelligence and behavior in 2 to 5 percent of American babies. A recent rat study linked the damage to a shortage of iron, suggesting a way to limit this major brain injury.
  • Spinal cord injury
    Based on studies in rats, UWMadison researchers have developed interventions to help patients with chronic spinal cord injury, a condition with no effective treatments.
  • Vitamin A
    In 1908, a UW–Madison biochemist studying nutrition in rats discovered vitamin A, opening the field of nutrition science. Vitamin A deficiency is the world’s leading cause of preventable blindness.
  • Vitamin D
    Prof. Harry Steenbock discovered how ultraviolet irradiation forms vitamin D in the skin, leading to Vitamin D enrichment, which helped make the bone-deforming disease infantile rickets a rarity. UW–Madison continues world leadership in vitamin D research, which plays a role in multiple diseases, and which likewise has relied on animal studies.
  • Lou Gehrig’s disease
    Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease) is a devastating and fatal disease that causes whole body paralysis. Using a rat model of ALS, Wisconsin researchers are developing stem cell therapies that slow the disease and preserve the ability to walk and breathe.
  • Alexander’s disease
    Alexander’s disease is a progressive and often fatal neurological disorder in children caused by a mutation. Wisconsin researchers have developed a transgenic mouse model of the disease in which they can screen libraries of drugs that are already approved for human use, speeding the search for a treatment.
  • Wound healing
    With the help of nanotechnology and animal models, Wisconsin researchers have developed techniques to improve wound healing in difficult areas, including corneal ulcers.

Animal Health

  • Canine influenza vaccine
    UW research shows that the new canine influenza vaccine can protect against bacterial infections associated with dog influenza. Most dogs have never been exposed and have no natural protection against canine influenza.
  • Fatal animal-human brain diseases
    UW–Madison researchers have pioneered the study of chronic wasting disease and other diseases caused by infectious proteins, or prions, exploring how deer spread the disease, how long prions survive in the soil, landfills and in wastewater treatment plants, and how prion diseases can jump between species.
  • Mad cow disease
    In the 1980s, before the outbreak of mad cow disease, a UW–Madison scientist identified prions in state mink farms. Prions also cause mad cow and chronic wasting diseases.
  • Improved vaccination for dogs and cats
    Wisconsin studies of the duration of immunity for canine and feline vaccinations has produced a set of national guidelines now used by the American Animal Hospital Association. The guidelines have revolutionized vaccination programs, making them safer and more effective, and have greatly improved vaccination for shelter animals.
  • Kidney transplants for cats
    Wisconsin veterinary medical researchers have developed kidney transplant techniques to address chronic kidney failure, a common disease in cats.
  • Preventing hip dysplasia in dogs
    A technique developed by UW–Madison researchers uses  radio energy to fuse a growth plate in susceptible young dogs, preventing hip dysplasia.
  • Antibody replacement
    Chicken studies have shown that egg antibodies can replace antibiotics in animal feeds, which would preserve antibiotic efficacy for both animals and humans. The egg-antibody product is being sold by a UW-Madison spin-off to suppliers of feed to the cattle, swine and poultry industries.
  • Long-lasting pain relief
    With the help of animal models, Wisconsin veterinary medical researchers have developed new, long-lasting pain relief injections for pet dogs, cats and birds. The injections are an alternative to intravenous pain relief, which requires longer hospitalization.
  • Johne’s disease
    UW–Madison researchers have developed detection and management programs for Johne’s disease in cattle. Johne’s is a chronic debilitating disease of cattle that forces farmers to remove affected animals from their herds, at significant cost.
  • Canine cancer treatment
    Pet dogs with nasal tumors were the first to benefit from Tomotherapy, a targeted and minimally invasive radiation therapy for cancer. This therapy was later adapted for human use.

Basic Biology

  • Embryonic stem cells
    Embryonic stem cells from monkeys and humans are a UW–Madison discovery that has revolutionized biology. Biologists worldwide use embryonic stem cells to study cancer, development, heart disease, diabetes and spinal-cord repair, and to explore new drugs, accelerating medical progress while reducing the need for lab animals.
  • Induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells
    Genetic reprogramming of a human skin cell produced an embryonic-like stem cell without the use of an embryo. This discovery rested on rhesus and marmoset embryonic stem cells developed on campus. iPS cells are now in use worldwide to explore basic biology and animal development.
  • Drug development
    Several types of stem cells are being used commercially to test for toxicity during drug development. The technology springs from animal work at Wisconsin and elsewhere, and could dramatically reduce the number of animals used for drug testing.
  • Culturing cells for scientific research
    Researchers at UW–Madison were the first in the world to isolate and grow heart muscle cells, white blood cells and neurons that activate muscles. The foundation of these technologies were animal studies conducted at UW–Madison.

Social Issues

  • The importance of mom
    Monkey research by Wisconsin’s Harry Harlow proved the importance of mother-child attachment to human development during the 1950s, when many psychologists discounted the relationship. In studies with a few animals, Harlow showed that food, water and medical care were not enough: young primates cannot grow into normal, healthy adults without contact with their mother. Harlow’s discoveries are widely applied in such settings as neonatal intensive care units.
  • Vaccines and brain development
    Wisconsin primate research linked viral infection with poor brain development, suggesting that vaccines could protect future generations against birth defects. During a wave of skepticism about vaccination, the research shows that women who are or may become pregnant can benefit from flu vaccinations.
  • Endangered species conservation
    Studies of the development and social behavior of the muriqui monkey has helped local communities preserve this endangered species in Brazil. Wisconsin researchers were also among the first to study wild gorillas, chimpanzees and bonobos, work that dates to the late 1950s.
  • Danger of Tasers
    A UW–Madison study showed that Tasers caused ventricular fibrillation in pigs, showing that a Taser could kill if it hit a person in the wrong place.
Benefits of Animal Research

Genetic reprogramming of a human skin cell produced an embryonic-like stem cell without the use of an embryo. This discovery rested on rhesus and marmoset embryonic stem cells developed on campus. iPS cells are now in use worldwide to explore basic biology and animal development.