5 Animals that Could Help Us Cure Some Human Diseases

Our long life is not without complications: degenerative diseases, pain, cancer... here are 5 animals used for research.
5 Animals that Could Help Us Cure Some Human Diseases
Sara González Juárez

Written and verified by the psychologist Sara González Juárez.

Last update: 09 October, 2022

Thanks to animals, in the future we may be able to cure some human diseases such as cancer or cardiovascular conditions. You might think that only those that have a genome similar to ours can help us in this respect, but the truth is that the differences between species are also relevant.

The bodies of our animal companions contain clues that, if deciphered, provide tools to improve the quality of human life. Let’s take a look at 5 examples of species currently being studied and, of course, the implications of this.

These animals could hold the key to cure some human diseases

Humans have far exceeded the average life expectancy of our species, which, for most of recorded history, has been around 30 years. Improved diets, control of the environment, and advances in medicine have been key factors in extending our expected lifespan to over 80 years in many countries.

However, this artificial lengthening of life brings with it new problems, such as degenerative diseases. Alzheimer’s disease and osteoarthritis are good examples. That’s why the study of human health never ends, and, along the way, it uses other species for its purposes. Let’s take a look at 5 illustrative examples.

Some chimpanzees.

1. Chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes)

Cardiovascular diseases haven’t only become more common with the lengthening of the average life span, but are also favored by the lifestyle habits in developed countries. Sedentary lifestyles and meat consumption are two very representative examples.

Humans are more prone to cardiovascular disease than other hominin species, such as the chimpanzee. In fact, a 2019 study found that it was the loss of a specific gene that made us more vulnerable to these ailments.

It’s hoped that, with this knowledge, genetic engineering can be turned to in the future to correct this.

2. Naked mole rats (Heterocephalus glaber)

These rodents, which many people find rather ugly, have a collection of “superpowers” worthy of our admiration: they live almost 30 years, can spend about 30 minutes in apnea sleep, and are immune to cancer, among many other peculiarities.

It’s the latter – immunity to tumors and cancers – which has attracted the attention of medical researchers. Animals whose bodies attack cancer cells and eliminate them could be an incredible help in overcoming this terrible disease.

It seems that this immunity has to do with the high amounts of hyaluronan secreted by the mole rats’ cells, a molecule involved in skin elasticity. Moreover, this molecule is five times larger than in humans.

3. Red kangaroo (Macropus rufus)

Osteoarthritis is another of the diseases that humans suffer the most as they get older. Obesity, poor posture, and misalignment of joints also play a significant role.

Many primates have similar joint problems to us.

However, in this case, we aren’t looking for similarities in related species, but, rather, for animals that could be of help to heal diseases. Such an animal is the red kangaroo. They have jump long jumps, run at up to 64 kilometers per hour (40 mph), and whose joints remain strong until very advanced ages.

This happens thanks to their cartilaginous structure, which helps them to withstand the punishment on the joints. In addition, the arrangement of their ligaments could be imitated in the future in knee implants.

4. Mexican tetra (Astyanax mexicanus)

These fish could hold the key to curing diabetes. Born blind due to having to adapt to a totally dark environment, searching for nutrients is a challenge for them. They’re forced to wait for seasonal floods to bring their food – algae – because inside the cave they wouldn’t be able to photosynthesize.

This fish carries a genetic mutation in the insulin receptor that causes resistance. This insulin resistance, which in humans leads to severe symptoms of diabetes, is a form of survival in fish. Their blood glucose spikes during times of food shortage, allowing them to survive.

5. Zebras (genus Equus)

Chronic stress is another disease in our modern world that has become an epidemic. It causes a whole host of health problems, including stomach ulcers.

However, natural stress is stress that lasts for a short time, in response to a sense of danger. Zebras, in this sense, are good models when it comes to curing human diseases caused by chronic stress, as they only suffer from it at specific moments. In this way, their physiology can be studied in order to make a comparison with humans.

The controversy over the use of animals in research

Red kangaroos.
Macropus rufus.

The fact of the matter is that, even though the value of some medical research is undeniable, new trends point towards other types of experimentation. Mathematical models, organoids, human cell culture, and organs on chips are some examples that allow direct studies on human models without using any other living species to experiment on.

Is science without animal suffering possible? The truth is that we don’t know, but many researchers are trying everything they can to develop techniques that, in addition to eliminating animal abuse, would speed up research into curing human diseases.

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