Animal Research Benefits Mom and Baby Alike

The contributions of animal research to human health are many.

In response to blanket statement that animal research “does not work” I wanted to provide three examples of how animal research has directly benefited the health of women and their babies: in-vitro fertilization, oral contraceptives and neonatal intensive care.

Do you or any of your friends conceived with help of in-vitro fertilization?  Do you know how the method was developed?

It turns out that rabbits played a central role in the development of in-vitro fertilization.   As far abck as 1891 Walter Heape in England reported the first known case of embryo transplantation from one rabbit species to another, thereby showing that it was possible to transfer the embryos to a gestational carrier without adverse effects.  In 1934 Dr. Gregory Pincus at Harvard achieved in-vitro fertilization in rabbits for the first time, and he made very detailed studies in animals of the effects of hormones on ovulation and early embryonic development.  Being ahead of his time brought him much negative reputation and was described by the media a modern “Dr. Frankestein” (in fact, he was denied tenure due to these experiments.)   In 1958 Dr. Min Chueh Chang demonstrated conclusively that IVF was possible by implanting black rabbit embryos conceived in the lab into a white rabbit.  His studies in rabbits, rats, mice and hamsters during the 1950’s, 60’s, and 70’s, identified key conditions for IVF to be successful, such as the need for sperm capacitation.  These findings paved the way for the development of in-vitro fertilization in humans by Dr. Robert Edwards and Dr. Patrick Steptoe, which allows families to have a children overcoming many obstacles to pregnancy, both in cases of female and male infertility.  Approximately 60,000 infants are born with the help of IVF in the US every year…   Thank the rabbits.

Have you ever asked yourself where oral contraceptives come from?

The “pill” was first introduced in the 60s based on synthetic hormones that mimic the way progesterone works to prevent ovulation.  In 1919 Dr Ludwig Haberlandt and colleagues first demonstrated that transplantation of ovaries of pregnant rabbits into fertile female rabbits suppressed their ovulation.   Shortly before his death Haberlandt was able to prevent pregnancy in mice through the oral administration of an extract from the ovaries. It later was discovered that this was caused by the hormone progesteroneMargaret Sanger, the famous American birth control activist,  asked Dr. Gregory Pincus (the same one that developed IFV) to think of new methods of contraception and, building on these results, he showed that repeated injections of progesterone indeed could stop ovulation in rabbits.   This key finding, along with the development of a synthetic version of progesterone, led the first clinical trials of “the pill” in Puerto Rico.   Identifying effective synthetic progesterones was not an easy task, Dr. Pincus and Dr. Chang screened over 200 candidates before identifying three that prevented ovulation in laboratory animals.  The subsequent clinical trials of one of these synthetic progesterones were successful and Enovid was approved by the FDA in 1957.   Thank the rabbits again…

Dr Gregory Pincus and Dr Min Chueh Chang, pictured alongside artificial insemination pioneer Sir John Hammond. Courtesy of Mrs. F. Hammond.

Have you any of your friends had a premature baby in the intensive care unit?   Do you know why survival rates are now much higher than in the past?

The rate of premature birth has increased by 36% since the 80s (1).  Most babies born before 37 weeks of pregnancy are premature and are at risk of many complications.  In the USA alone, about 12.8% of babies are born prematurely and will spend their first few days of their lives in the neonatal intensive care unit.  Among babies born before the 34th week, 23,000 a year of them suffer from respiratory distress syndrome (RDS).  Such babies lack a protein in their lungs (called surfactants) that keep the air sacs in the lungs from collapsing.

Surfactants were discovered and their chemical composition analyzed using dogs in biomedical research and through research on rabbits and lambs surfactant therapy, initially using surfactant from cows and later synthetic surfactant, was developed.  The fruits of this research were translated into the treatments using surfactants in the 90s, which reduced the death of babies from RDS by about 50% (2).  In other words, slightly more than 10,000 babies are saved every year just in the US alone due to surfactant-replacement therapy.

That’s more than one baby per hour just in the US… Saved.  Thanks to animal research.

And this work goes on, for example in recent posts Paul has discussed the use of brain cooling and xenon gas to protect babies who have suffered oxygen starvation during birth from brain damage.

So when animal rights activists and the medical wing of their movement state that animal research “does not work”, what they really mean is that it does not work… for them.

Yet, they cannot deny these facts with books full of half-truths and out-of-context citations.

Anyone can walk into the nearest neonatal ICU and face the babies and their parents.  Face the facts.

Dario Ringach


(1) Martin, J.A., et al. Births: Final Data for 2006. National Vital Statistics Reports, volume 57, number 7, January 7, 2008.

(2) Engle, W.A., and the Committee on Fetus and Newborn. Surfactant-Replacement Therapy for Respiratory Distress in the Preterm and Term Neonate. Pediatrics, volume 121, number 2, February 2008, pages 419-428

2 thoughts on “Animal Research Benefits Mom and Baby Alike

  1. I’m so glad I found your site. We are complete opposites and would have much to discuss if we were to share a cup of coffee someday. I understand research using animals has helped humans in multiple ways, as you’ve described above. There are always two sides to a story. When it comes to using animals in research that in the end benefit humans only, I (along with many others) question the ethics of the animal research industry. Why does the industry think a human life is more valuable than a non-human life? Why is the industry willing to risk the well being of hundreds or even thousands of animal lives for the small chance that a human life will be saved? It’s may be true that animal research saves human lives, but it is at the cost of millions of non-human animal lives every year!

    1. True, it takes a huge effort and many animal lives to yield a cure or therapy for a disease. When this happens, however, uncountable humans (and animals too) benefit, from the time of the discovery to eternity. The first vaccines to be developed were for rabies and continue to benefit animals today. Polio has been nearly eradicated from earth. Vaccines alone have already saved billions of human lives. And, of course, vastly more number of animals are used for food than research. In fact, more end up as roadkill than used in US labs every year. If there is any one use of animals by humans that is justifiable is their use to advance medical science and knowledge.

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