Historical interest in rabbits
Some of the earliest work on rabbits as a model for cancer research was begun in the 1930s. The laboratory of Richard Shope was studying a number of different virus systems, and came across a viral infection that appeared to cause tumors in rabbits. Eventually a papilloma virus was described and characterized, and crucial understandings of viral agents of cancer and the underlying mechanisms began to develop. Peyton Rous contributed to this characterization, and was awarded a Nobel Prize for decades later for the discovery of viruses that can induce tumors.
Rabbits as a laboratory model system
Subsequent work led to increased understanding of the biology, and has also led to the development of supportive infrastructure around the model system. For example, cell cultures that can be used to inoculate animals have been generated from the historical papilloma viral system, and this model (VX2) continues to be used today in the study of liver cancers, oral cancers, lung cancers, and more. Transplantable tumor models have been used to instigate carcinoma formation in a wide range of tissues. The remarkable flexibility of this system, and the decades of knowledge underlying it, makes the rabbit cancer model system both efficient and effective.
Early work was done on wild rabbits in some cases, and domesticated rabbits in others. Today much of the work that is done is performed on New Zealand white laboratory rabbits (NZW), Oryctolagus cuniculus. However, other work is done on cottontail rabbits (Sylvilagus floridanus). Genetic differences among the rabbits may provide useful insights into the biology of cancer as well.
Additional support for rabbit cancer research will arise from the sequencing work on the rabbit genome.