The unsung heroes in the fight against COVID-19

A salute to the laboratory animals who will ONCE AGAIN save millions of human lives.

Background

Monument to laboratory mice – Institute of Cytology and Genetics in Novosibirsk

After the last 8 months, a wealth of research results have made many parts of Covid-19’s nature well documented, first and foremost it’s ability to infect multiple species of animal, including us humans.

This is zoonotic capacity is widely believed to be the result of the pandemic infection in human beings, but it also presents scientist with the key to fighting it through research of the virus using animal models.

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What are the required characteristics of an animal model?

Laboratory animals and their care and use is a complicated field. The animal lab scientist is part gentle pet owner, part breeder, part farmer, part laboratory scientist, and part advocate for the animal.

The model animal, ethical justification, value of the study outcome and available budget are all balanced delicately to do this work:

  • A cockroach might be cheap to breed and maintain but is not a suitable host for the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
  • Chimpanzees might yield a perfect result, but they become way too stressed in isolation to justify subjecting them to it and its not feasible to keep a thousand of them to yield statistically significant results.

Ultimately, for this pandemic, we need the animal to be not only susceptible to infection, but we need an animal that displays clinical signs of infection. We need an animal that gets sick.

The solution?

Lutz, C., Maher, L., Lee, C. et al. COVID-19 preclinical models: human angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 transgenic mice. Hum Genomics 14, 20 (2020)

In the most serious cases, the mechanism of action that induces illness from Covid-19 is its interaction with ACE2, an enzyme governing the inflammatory response of the host cell. The infection essentially high-jacks an existing biochemical pathway and creating a cascade of severe inflammatory responses in neighbouring cells until the entire affected tissue suffers potentially irreparable damage and compromised functionality.

The key in studying the disease, therefore, is the affected enzyme, human ACE2.

SARS-CoV-2 infection experiments on animals have yielded data listing several animals that exhibit susceptibility, including ferrets, hamsters, mice, macaques, African green monkeys, and marmosets. None, however, as promising as the strain of genetically modified mice bred in 2003, K18-hACE2 Tg, which were developed specially for research into the SARS outbreak then.

Here we have the ideal solution to the animal model problem. Mice are small, require relatively little resources, and since we have been studying them for ages, we have a tremendous amount of data on them, making observations much clearer than with most other living subjects.

What can we expect?

Without being overly speculative, the hope is that these little transgenic troopers will help us in the following ways:

  • Developing a vaccine using the antibodies the model animal produces
  • Evaluating newly developed treatments by testing their efficacy in treating infected animals
  • Growing our insight into the pathology of the virus and each newly evolved strain, by investigation and monitoring its effects on these animals
  • Determining and measuring the risk factors that cause unfavorable outcomes for Covid-19 patients, such as preexisting conditions or environmental factors that we can subject these animals to.

In conclusion:

There is no alternative for the use of laboratory animals in health research, especially not for the current pandemic, and it is clear that the developments made in this field today, are going to save lives in future pandemics we that can’t even see coming yet.

As far as we at Briza Scientific are concerned, all that is left to say is:

Thank you for your service, humble mouse.

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