Sometimes it may seem like our work doesn’t make a difference in the world. For a stark reminder that it does, we asked Brian Anderson at Allentown, Inc. to write a guest post in which he could share the very personal story of how animal research saved his daughter’s life.
Virtually my entire career has been dedicated to the animal research industry—first as a lab planner, then as a sales representative, and now as the Business Development Manager at Allentown, Inc. But I never realized the true importance of animal research until the time my daughter’s life was saved by a horse. Since then I’ve been curious to find out more about animal research and how it led to every treatment my daughter received during her 16-month-long battle with a rare bone marrow disease. Was it just horses that saved her life, or were other animals involved too?
To give some background, my daughter Liviya was 6 years old when she was taken to the emergency room after her blood work came back from the pediatrician in disastrous condition. I will never forget the moment I heard she was being rushed to the emergency room. I had just returned home to Raleigh, North Carolina, after a business trip to the National AALAS Convention in Atlanta. I turned my phone on and saw that I had five missed calls from my wife, Rebekah. She was frantic. What she had thought was something innocent, like strep throat, wasn’t. She was in the emergency room, surrounded by doctors in masks, praying that our daughter wouldn’t die.
The doctors didn’t know what was wrong, all they knew was she needed blood and platelet transfusions immediately. Liviya’s red blood cell count was so low that her body wasn’t getting the oxygen it needed—she was anemic. Her white blood cell count was so low she basically didn’t have an immune system. And her platelets were around 2,600, which meant she could start hemorrhaging at any second and we could lose her. None of the doctors at our local hospital knew what was wrong with her. They said it could be leukemia. The very thought devastated us.
It turned out not to be leukemia. Dr. Brent Weston, the Hematology-Oncology specialist for pediatrics at University of North Carolina Hospital at Chapel Hill, told us that Liviya had developed a rare disease called aplastic anemia. It is a disease that turned her own immune system against her and was destroying her bone marrow. Liviya’s lymphocytes were attacking the very cells that were crucial to becoming red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets. Her own immune system was killing her.
There are only a few successful treatments for aplastic anemia, all of which have been studied and perfected with the help of animal models.
Because aplastic anemia is a disease of the bone marrow, the initial go-to treatment is a bone marrow transplant. Healthy bone marrow stem cells are harvested from a donor—from either the bones or blood stream—and introduced into the sick patient, which simulates growth of healthy cells and a working immune system.
It was with animals that scientists first started exploring the benefits of bone marrow transplants to combat the negative effects of radiation, and it was with animals that scientists discovered the immense success of bone marrow transplants in treating many diseases, from cancer to lupus. Bone marrow transplants are the most successful stem cell therapy known today, and animal models, from mice to monkeys, were all vital in this success.
For my daughter, this animal research meant a new chance at life. Unfortunately her older brother wasn’t a genetic match, so a sibling donated bone marrow transplant was out of the question.
Our next option was a treatment called anti-thymocyte globulin, or ATG for short. ATG is a “purified animal serum” that is made to target particular cells in the human immune system. In Liviya’s case, the ATG would be fighting her own T-Cells, the very cells that were supposed to be protecting her from disease, but in this case were causing it.
Horses and rabbits are the main sources of ATG. Their blood is immunized against human T-cells and purified into a hodgepodge of antibodies that are then given through an IV to the receiving patient. Liviya received ATG that had been made by horses, which delighted her six-year-old mind. Liviya responded positively to her ATG treatments. She is well again, but not cured. There is a 50/50 chance that she will have a relapse of aplastic anemia within her lifetime.
Throughout all of her treatments, Liviya needed multiple blood and platelet transfusions. A blood transfusion is a medical miracle that was discovered centuries ago and was perfected over hundreds of years of research with animals—dogs, sheep, mice, rats, and guinea pigs, to name a few. Even though most of this animal research happened prior to the early 20th century, it led to the widely used blood donation and screening techniques used by the Red Cross today.
It may appear that the only animal that was involved directly in Liviya’s successful treatment was a horse, but there were many animals that contributed to her excellent prognosis of survival, and the survival of other children who are also faced with these life-threatening diseases. Bone marrow transplants are still the treatment-of-choice for aplastic anemia and leukemia, and the animals that contribute to these studies offer much needed advancements in this field.
My family has been drastically changed by our battle with aplastic anemia. Liviya’s appreciation of horses has grown immensely—she hopes to always have horses in her life and to one day own a horse farm when she grows up. My work is suddenly vastly more meaningful—I assist in the design and planning of biomedical research facilities for a living which may one day contribute to a treatment or a cure that might save a child’s life, possibly Liviya’s. A father dreams about being there for his daughter, protecting her through the hard times, and fighting her demons. It turned out, in this case, that my daughter didn’t just need her dad. She needed a mouse, a dog, and a horse to save her life. And so far, they have.
Liviya’s dad, an Allentown employee, Brian Anderson is passionate about raising awareness and funding for continued research into aplastic anemia. Brian gives regular talks about his family’s experience with the disease, and has begun a foundation to raise money for research to find a cure. Please donate by Clicking below.