Organ transplants

Organ transplants have improved the quality - and length - of life for millions of people across the world.

The first human cornea transplant took place over 100 years ago, following research using rabbits. In 2006-7, 2,403 people had their sight restored by cornea transplants in the UK.

Kidney transplants

Chronic kidney disease often requires the patient to have waste products and excess water removed from their blood through dialysis, a procedure that was developed using guinea pigs, rabbits, dogs and monkeys. Dialysis takes three to four hours and needs to be done three times a week. Research using animals has been involved in developing the techniques of kidney transplants, which give patients freedom from dialysis, allowing them to lead a normal life.

Of the 5,000 people who develop kidney failure every year in the UK, one in three would die without a kidney transplant. The surgery behind transplantation itself but also methods of tissue-typing and anti-rejection drugs were developed using dogs, rabbits and mice from 1950 onwards (see ‘rejection problems').



Heart transplants

Heart transplants are now routine. However, the first human-to-human heart transplant in 1967 by Professor Christiaan Barnard in South Africa was big news. Few people knew that the operation was the culmination of more than 60 years of preparatory animal research. In 1912, French surgeon Alexis Carrel received a Nobel Prize for his technique for joining up blood vessels - a skill he had honed by taking embroidery lessons and practised by stitching together pieces of paper.

Animal studies between 1930 and 1950 illuminated ways to beat the problems of rejection. US surgeon Norman Shumway, who had been expected to perform the world's first human to human transplant, began transplanting hearts in dogs in the 1950s and described this preliminary work in more than 20 papers published by 1967. Barnard and his colleagues carried out nearly 50 animal heart transplants over four years in preparation for the historic operation in that year. But he was criticised by colleagues who argued that he should have done more animal work before proceeding.

Heart-lung transplants were later developed using monkeys. In the 12 months from April 2005 to March 2006, 154 heart transplants and 15 heart-lung transplants were carried out in the UK alone.

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