A Chinese folklore tells of a Jade rabbit that lives on the moon as a companion to the Moon Goddess. It is also said that the rabbit consistently pounds herbal medicine in a mortar, manufacturing elixirs of life for the goddess.
Today, we can conclusively say that the rabbit's involvement in the medical field is not restricted to folklore. In recent years, scientists have also come to recognise the importance of these cute creatures to biomedical research, especially in the study of immunology. The European rabbit genome (Oryctolagus cuniculus) was first sequenced and assembled at 2x coverage in 2005. Subsequently in April 2009, the genome was sequenced again, this time with a completed higher quality draft assembly of 7x coverage. Rabbits suffer from many sicknesses similar to human diseases and have the ability to rapidly produce large amounts of highly specific antibodies in response to foreign disease agents, making them great models for the study of human autoimmune diseases.
An example of the use of rabbits as research models is in the study of Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE), an autoimmune disease which occurs in both rabbits and humans. SLE results in an overactive immune response which attacks otherwise healthy cells and tissues, sometimes leading to the eventual death of the patient. To date, the cause of SLE is still unknown and there is no cure for it.
However, over the past decade, scientists have made good progress in the efforts to cure SLE, focussing on the targeting and elimination of B-cells. B-cells are triggered by the B-cell activating factor (BAFF) and are responsible for tissue damage through the generation of antibodies. Scientists have turned to the rabbit SLE model to better understand the function of BAFF and its receptors. For this purpose, a comparison of sequences from human and rabbit BAFF homologues is necessary to ensure confident research correlation.
With SynaTate™, researchers can locate regions of significance within a sequence. In this example, the rabbit BAFF was queried against an NR database, revealing a region of interest in the first forward reading frame. The specific region in the rabbit BAFF sequence was then selected and searched against the SwissProt database with SynaSearch™, indicating that the closest match to rabbit BAFF is the tumour necrosis factor ligand superfamily member 13B (TNFSF13B) protein in humans. As expected, TNFSF13B is also involved in the stimulation of B- and T-cell functions in the human immune system. With this knowledge, researchers would be able to design inhibition or knockout experiments in rabbits to further study the potential of TNFSF13B reduction in curing SLE disease.
As more associations are formed between the human and rabbit genomes, the rabbit model is expected to play a significant role in biomedical studies of diseases and in the eventual development of cures and vaccines.