Animals behind the Nobel Prize

30 September 2014

Posted by: Richard Scrase

Category: Research & medical benefits

animals-behind-the-nobel-prize.jpgNext week we’ll learn who will win the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine, and it is extremely likely that animal research features within the experiments that led to the prize.

Over the last 40 years, every Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine bar one (1983 - Barbara McClintock for her plant genetics research) has depended on work using animals.

From the earliest award in 1901 for serum therapy against diphtheria, tested on rats, mice and rabbits to last year’s award (2013) for the discovery of the machinery regulating vesicle traffic which used GM mice, rats and hamsters; animals generally feature in the research behind the Nobel prizes.

Many of the winners were modest folk. Henry Dale, then director of the National Institute for Medical Research, was awarded the prize along with Otto Loewi for their work on nerve transmission in 1936. Apparently he instructed his secretary “to tell telephone callers that he was working in his laboratory and could not be disturbed.”

The Nobel Prize presentation speeches often give a brief history of the discovery, and collectively amount to an important source of the history of science. From the 1943 speech(discovery of Vitamin K), 

In 1929, at the Biochemical Institute of Copenhagen University, Dam was engaged on experimental studies on chicks, who received a diet extremely poor in fat. He then observed that the chicks after some time showed hemorrhages in different parts of the body and also, in one of them, that the blood sample coagulated slower than normally. Dam supposed at first that it was a question of scurvy, i.e. a deficiency of vitamin C, but found, on continued investigation, that neither this nor any other known vitamin, nor cholesterin, could prevent or check the hemorrhagic tendency in the laboratory animals.

In cooperation with F. Schønheyder, it was found by Dam in 1934 that an addition of hempseed to the food prevented the bleedings. This forced him to the conclusion that hempseed must contain a still unknown substance which has a protective effect against certain hemorrhages. This substance, which was found to be necessary for the coagulation of the blood, is termed by Dam the coagulation vitamin or vitamin K.

Just two years later, an award for a discovery with far more impact – penicillin.

Experiments on mice infected with large doses of pyogenic or gas gangrene bacteria, which are sensitive to penicillin, proved convincingly that it had a favourable effect. While over 90% of the animals treated with penicillin recovered, all the untreated control animals died. 

Experiments on animals play an immense role for modern medicine; indeed it would certainly be catastrophic if we ventured to test remedies on healthy or sick persons, without having first convinced ourselves by experiments on animals that the toxic effect is not too great…

Now with only six days to go before the announcements we can only suggest you take a moment to join us in a guess as to who will be the winner this year.

Last edited: 2 October 2014 11:55