Royal Veterinary College scientists have bred a colony of beagles suffering with muscular dystrophy, in an attempt to develop drugs which would beat the killer disease in humans.
"A host of promising new methods have been developed for treating muscular dystrophy in recent years, and these are now ready for trials," said Professor Richard Piercy, an expert on neuromuscular disease at the college.
Muscular dystrophy is an inherited progressive disease which stops sufferers being able to build or repair muscle. This disease affects around 2,500 boys in the UK.
Researchers hope that the beagles could offer 'key insight' into how developed treatments would affect humans, and whether drugs could halt the disease's progress. But animal rights activists are raising questions about the necessity of performing the research on dogs.
The Royal Veterinary College's beagle project began a few years ago when a family of dystrophic dogs, which had been bred from a cavalier king charles spaniel and a bichon frise, was discovered by vets. Dogs from this family were bred with beagles to produce the college colony.
As a result these dogs sometimes have fluffier coats than normal. In the past, the use of beagles in experiments - including research concerned with tobacco - has caused considerable controversy and triggered accusations of animal cruelty. However, the college's scientists emphasize that their dogs are treated with care and compassion.
Robert Meadowcroft, chief executive of Muscular Dystrophy UK, added: 'Many parents across the rest of the UK are watching their child weaken and lose mobility day by day, as this really is a race against time.'