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Animals and Medicine

Jack Howard Botting

III. Drugs for Organic Diseases

16. The Control of Malignant Hypertension

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1The reduction of the death and morbidity rates due to infective disease in the 1930s and 40s threw other pathological problems into sharper relief. Thus, in the developed world, cardiovascular disease and cancer became the major causes of death.

2An important risk factor for many cardiovascular diseases is raised blood pressure, a symptom which the opponents of animal experiments imply could be avoided by changes in one’s lifestyle – stopping smoking, taking exercise and reducing fat intake, alcohol and stress (see for example Ref. 1, p. 44). Even if one disregards the mutable nature of the evidence connecting diet with cardiovascular disease, and the undeniable contribution of one’s genetic constitution to this condition, the implication that all cases of high blood pressure are so avoidable is certainly not in accord with clinical experience prior to the use of the first antihypertensive drugs.

Malignant Hypertension

3High blood pressure accompanied by changes in the optic fundi (papilloedema) characterised a particular type of hypertension with a markedly rapid downhill course. Malignant hypertension, as it was known, could occur at virtually any age, and was generally fatal within one year of diagnosis. Contemporary clinical descriptions are to be found in the paper of Schottstaedt and Sokolow (2) who described the inexorable pathological progress of 104 patients aged from 13 to 71 years, who attended their outpatient department during the 1940s. The average survival time after discovery of papilloedema was 8.4 months. Initial symptoms were blurred vision and headaches. According to physicians treating the patients, the headaches could be devastatingly painful (3).

4The difficulties of dealing with severe hypertension are described graphically by Dollery (4) in his admirable review of the history of hypertension treatments. As a junior clinical student in the early 1950s he had to deal with a female patient admitted to an ear, nose and throat ward with nose bleed. She was found to have a very high blood pressure and papilloedema. After the bleeding was stopped she was “discharged on the grounds that the condition was untreatable.” Dollery goes on to describe his subsequent experience (three years later) with the then current treatment of the most severe, refractory hypertension. This was the removal of both adrenal glands, and replacement therapy with the life-essential hormone cortisone. The aim, said Dollery,

was to find a precarious ledge between death from Addisonian crisis on the one hand and malignant hypertension on the other. It was a challenging experience for a preregistration house officer. If the blood pressure was brought under control there was dramatic clinical improvement. Pulmonary oedema vanished like magic, deterioration of renal function halted, and retinal cotton wool spots and papilloedema quickly regressed.

5The available treatment before the development of antihypertensive drugs was reviewed by Wilkins in 1946 (5). It consisted of bed rest and reassurance of the patient, weight loss through the adoption of a low fat diet, restriction of salt intake, no smoking and possibly the use of sedatives and hypnotics to alleviate stress. As is evident, this regimen is virtually identical with that advocated by antivivisectionists today as totally effective against hypertension (1), in their attempts to dismiss the need for drug treatment and thus animal experiments. Yet malignant hypertension was then, as described above, a dreadful disease, as a last resort only treatable by the removal of a life-essential endocrine gland and consequent life-long hormone replacement (see Table below).

MALIGNANT HYPERTENSION: CASE REPORTS. From Keith, Wagener & Kernohan (1928) Arch Int Med 41 141






Duration of life from diagnosis (months)




Headache, visual disturbance






Headache, attacks of unconsciousness






Headache, albuminurea






Headache, dispnoea, blurred vision






Tachycardia, dispnoea






Constant headache



Development of Antihypertensive Therapy

6The first effective treatment of severe hypertension stemmed from the study of the autonomic nervous system, that is those peripheral nerves that control the minute-by-minute activity of individual organs. Activation of the sympathetic nerves of the autonomic system was shown, in animals, to cause constriction of blood vessels and hence a rise in blood pressure. Attention was thus directed at abolishing the activity of the sympathetic nervous system in hypertension, initially by its removal or “sympathectomy.” This was not an operation to be lightly undertaken and its efficacy in hypertension was never definitively established.

7Of great import was the demonstration, after many experiments on various mammals, that nerves affected the organs they innervate by the release of small amounts of a chemical as each impulse reached the nerve ending. This “chemical transmission” at nerve endings provided a potential site for the use of drugs to modify nerve activity. This could be achieved either by using a synthetic chemical to mimic the effect of the “transmitter,” or by the use of a chemical that could block either the release or the action of the transmitter.

Ganglionic Blocking Drugs

8In all autonomic nerves there are neuron to neuron junctions (or synapses). The transmission across the synapse is achieved by the release of acetylcholine from the first neuron, which acts on a receptor on the second neuron to cause activation. The swelling in autonomic nerves which signifies where most of the synapses are present, is called a ganglion. Some quaternary ammonium compounds were shown to cause a blockade of the acetylcholine receptors at ganglia and hence a fall in blood pressure in animal experiments. This effect was however, too short-lived for clinical exploitation.

9The major breakthrough in the control of severe hypertension emerged from a study of the actions of the polymethylene-bisquaternary ammonium salts in the anaesthetised cat by Paton and Zaimis in 1948 (6). These compounds consisted of two quaternised nitrogen atoms separated by a methylene chain of from 2 to 12 carbon atoms in length.

10Chemical similarity with other drugs suggested that the 9-11 methylene compounds might be potent voluntary muscle relaxants, drugs of considerable importance for the control of convulsions and for use during surgery. The 10 methylene compound (decamethonium) was indeed a potent neuromuscular blocking drug. This activity decreased with shortening of the chain and was absent in the 7 methylene compound.

11Fortunately, Paton and Zaimis continued with the investigation of the smaller molecules and found that they had other activity. The 5 and 6 methylene compounds markedly lowered the blood pressure of the anaesthetised cat, and on injection to the rabbit, caused the ears to flush bright red. The latter action impressed Paton, since he recalled Claude Bernard’s observation almost a hundred years earlier, that cutting the sympathetic nerve to the rabbit’s ear produced the same effect. Paton therefore suspected that these drugs were blocking sympathetic ganglia. Further experimentation established that this was indeed the action of the 5 and 6 methylene compounds, and Paton and Zaimis considered that the 6 methylene compound (hexamethonium) might be usable in hypertension as a “clean, specific ganglion-blocker.”

12It is an interesting historical aside that Paton and Zaimis originally intended to restrict their first publication on the activity of these methonium compounds to their neuromuscular blocking actions. The reason for their decision to include a mention of the possible use of hexamethonium in high blood pressure, was that the head technician of the engineering workshop in their Hampstead laboratory had malignant hypertension, and was becoming incapacitated by splitting headaches and deteriorating sight. Paton described the technician as “a beautiful craftsman” and “a very nice man.” No doubt the publication of the blood pressure-lowering actions of hexamethonium hastened the clinical use of this drug for malignant hypertension, but unhappily it was too late for Paton’s technician, who died soon after.

13Clinical studies with hexamethonium began almost immediately in Dunedin, New Zealand, and in two centres in London (4). The treatment of malignant hypertension with hexamethonium showed that reducing the blood pressure

  • relieved the severe headache;
  • enabled the retinal damage to regress and hence improved vision;
  • allowed the enlarged heart and oedema of the lung in hypertensive heart failure to return towards normal;
  • allowed the patient to return to work (7).

Development of Antihypertensive Drugs

14The realisation that the raised blood pressure in hypertension was not a compensation for the narrowing of the lumen of blood vessels, and that simply lowering the blood pressure dramatically improved the prognosis in hypertension, stimulated a tremendous research effort to produce other, improved hypotensive drugs. Although hexamethonium was of great significance since, as Paton said “it helped to get a foot in the door of really effective treatment of hypertension” (7), it had many undesirable side actions because of blockade of autonomic reflexes of the parasympathetic as well as the sympathetic system.

15The development, after extensive animal experiments, of selective inhibitors of adrenergic neurones by pharmacologists at Burroughs Wellcome and the Ciba Company, provided a treatment without the unpleasant symptoms caused by block of parasympathetic ganglia (bethanidine and guanethidine). Further drug treatments for hypertension followed rapidly (4), with the development of reserpine (shown to cause hypotension in the cat (19)), hydralazine (hypotensive in dog and cat (20)), alpha methyldopa and the first thiazide diuretic, chlorothiazide (action established in dog, lack of toxicity in dog, rat and mouse (Figs. 16.1 and 16. 2).

Fig. 16.1 Deaths from hypertensive disease. Annual deaths per million population. Data from Paton et al. (1978), Highlights of British Science, Silver Jubilee Exhibition, Royal Society and Compendium of Health Statistics, 8th edition, 1992 (Office of Health Economics).

Fig. 16.2 Treatment of malignant hypertension with ganglionic blocking drugs. Comparison between 140 treated and 105 untreated patients, percent surviving against time after diagnosis. Data from Paton et al. (1978).

Beta Blockers

16The use of beta blocking drugs in hypertension stemmed from the observation by Prichard that administration of pronethalol (the first beta blocker in clinical use) to patients with angina resulted in a small but persistent fall in blood pressure (8). Pronethalol was withdrawn because it was shown to produce tumours in mice, but the use of the beta blocker propranolol in hypertension was described by Prichard the same year. Comparative trials of propranolol with proven antihypertensive drugs established the value of beta blocking drugs in hypertension.

17The fact that such an important antihypertensive agent emerged from clinical observation is hailed by the National Anti-Vivisection Society as an example of “progress without animals” (9). The beta blocking drugs however, were developed and perfected for the treatment of angina and some forms of cardiac arrhythmia, after years of animal experimentation. Without that animal experimental work the drugs would not have been available for clinical use. The fact that whilst being used successfully for angina an additional indication was uncovered is certainly a tribute to the acumen and persistence of the clinician, but in no way a condemnation of animal experiments.

18After the hypotensive actions of propranolol were demonstrated in patients, the drug was also shown to reduce the blood pressure of spontaneously hypertensive rats (SHR) (10). These rats, as they mature, develop a high blood pressure, with consequent pathological changes in the kidneys, and cardiovascular and cerebrovascular complications similar to those that occur in patients (11). Had propranolol been tested before in SH rats, its antihypertensive activity would have been exposed. However, from all the clinical and experimental knowledge of the time, no-one could have predicted such an action. Even today, the mechanism of action of beta blockers in hypertension is not absolutely certain.

ACE Inhibitors

19The discovery of the effectiveness of angiotensin converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors in hypertension is a particularly interesting example of how animal experiments can contribute, sometimes in a circuitous way, to the development of new medicines.

20Study of the effects of the venom of a Brazilian snake, Bothrops jararaca, led to the discovery of bradykinin, a peptide with potent pharmacological actions that could be formed in blood. The Brazilian pharmacologist Sergio Ferreira, also found in the venom a factor that markedly potentiated the actions of bradykinin. He called this bradykinin potentiating factor or BPF. In the 1960s, Ferreira brought a sample of BPF to the Royal College of Surgeons in London, where he was to work with Professor John Vane as a postdoctoral fellow. Vane’s interest at this time was the biological importance of another peptide that could be formed in the blood, angiotensin II. This substance caused a marked rise in the blood pressure, and was formed from a relatively inactive precursor, angiotensin I, by a converting enzyme (ACE). It was thus inevitable that the action of BPF would eventually be tested on ACE, and it was found to be a potent inhibitor, thus preventing the production of the hypertensive angiotensin II in the body (12).

21BPF was shown to reverse the rise in blood pressure produced in rats by occlusion of the renal artery, and lowered the blood pressure in other rat models of hypertension. Eventually the purified BPF was synthesised and was shown to lower the blood pressure in hypertensive patients. The preparation of a non-peptide, orally active enzyme inhibitor was thus shown to be a worthwhile therapeutic objective. The synthesis of a number of candidates, tested in rat models of hypertension, resulted in the marketing of captopril as a successful antihypertensive treatment in 1977 (12). Captopril was later also shown to be also useful in congestive heart failure.


22The drug treatment of hypertensive disease has been a remarkable success story. From the life-saving but clumsy ganglionic blocking drugs, with their miserable side effects and poor absorption, came the graduation to improved drugs with fewer, but still severe, side actions. Often, these side actions were dose-related and thus probably preventable (4). Today the drug treatment is relatively refined. For the vast majority of patients therapy for hypertension is effective and benign. With the prospect of the development of novel drugs, such as angiotensin receptor antagonists, even further refinement might be envisaged (13). The realisation of the crucial importance of the vascular endothelial cell in the control of the calibre of vessels through the continuous release of nitric oxide (NO) (14), and the demonstration that patients with untreated hypertension possess an abnormality of the NO-mediated dilatation of arterioles (15), will no doubt furnish additional treatments or even a cure for hypertension.

23Although the most striking achievement has been the control of malignant hypertension, over the last 40 years a number of clinical trials have shown that treating less extreme cases of raised blood pressure can reduce the risk of stroke, coronary heart disease and renal disease (16). Since the drug treatment of the disease has improved so much, there is a risk that it might be instituted in patients with only slightly raised diastolic pressure. Provided their blood pressure is constantly monitored, such patients might be better helped by the more conservative measures of diet, reduced salt intake etc. that were the norm prior to the 1950s. A number of thoughtful papers have recently appeared which suggest such conservative treatments might be preferable (and cheaper) than drug therapy except in high risk groups, for example those with a family history of hypertension (17). Such papers are used by antivivisectionists to claim that patients are treated unnecessarily with drugs (18). Whereas one must be vigilant to ensure that drugs are not used without sound reason, it is a clinical decision at what systolic and diastolic pressure one institutes drug therapy, and nothing to do with animal experimentation. It is indisputable that animal experiments, through providing effective hypotensive drugs, have reduced mortality and morbidity from cardiovascular and cerebrovascular disease.



1) Sharpe R (1988) The Cruel Deception: The Use of Animals in Medical Research. London: Thorsons.

2) Schottstaedt M & Sokolow M (1953) The natural history and course of hypertension with papilledema (malignant hypertension). Am Heart J 45 331.

3) Paton W (1993) Personal communication.

4) Dollery C (1987) Hypertension. Br Heart J 58 179.

5) Wilkins R (1946) Essential hypertension; present status of the problem. Med Clin N Am 5 1079.

6) Paton W & Zaimis E (1948) Clinical potentialities of certain bisquaternary salts causing neuromuscular and ganglionic block. Nature 162 810.

7) Paton W (1982) Hexamethonium. Br J clin Pharmac 13 7.

8) Prichard B (1982) Propranolol and ß-adrenergic receptor blocking drugs in the treatment of hypertension. Br J clin Pharmac 13 51.

9) NAVS Leaflet (1993) Animal Experiments, the Facts.

10) Garvey H & Ram N (1975) Comparative antihypertensive effects and tissue distribution of ßeta adrenergic blocking drugs. J Pharm Exper Ther 194 220.

11) Tobian L (1974) Hospital Practice. February 99.

12) Vane J (1992) The technique of cascade superfusion, in Animal Experimentation and the Future of Medical Research ed J Botting. London: Portland Press.

13) Brown M (1993) Angiotensin receptor blockers in essential hypertension. The Lancet 342 1374.

14) Rees D, Palmer R & Moncada S (1989) Role of endothelium-derived nitric oxide in the regulation of blood pressure. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 86 3375.

15) Calver A, Collier J, Moncada S & Vallance P (1992) Effect of local intra-arterial NG-monomethyl-L-arginine in patients with hypertension: the nitric oxide dilator mechanism appears normal. J Hypertens 10 1025.

16) Jackson R, Barham P, Bills J, Birch T, McLennan L, MacMahon S & Maling T (1993) Management of raised blood pressure in New Zealand: a discussion document. BMJ 307 107.

17) Kawachi I & Wilson N (1990) The evolution of antihypertensive therapy. Soc Sci Med 31 1239.

18) Coleman V (1994) Betrayal of Trust. European Medical Journal, Lynmouth

19) Sen G & Bose K (1931) Ind Med World 2 194.

20) Gross F, Druey J & Meier R (1950) Eine nueu Gruppe blutdrucksenkender Substanzen von besonderem Wirkungscharakter. Experientia 6 19.

21) Beyer K (1958) The mechanism of action of chlorothiazide. Ann NY Acad Sci 71 363.
Acknowledgement: The late Sir William Paton was approached early in 1993 to consider writing an article on the development of the drug treatment of hypertension. He regretfully declined but was very generous with the supply of reprints and with his reminiscences of his own research and of the life of the hypertensive patient before the 1950s.

Table des illustrations

Légende Fig. 16.1 Deaths from hypertensive disease. Annual deaths per million population. Data from Paton et al. (1978), Highlights of British Science, Silver Jubilee Exhibition, Royal Society and Compendium of Health Statistics, 8th edition, 1992 (Office of Health Economics).
Fichier image/jpeg, 288k
Légende Fig. 16.2 Treatment of malignant hypertension with ganglionic blocking drugs. Comparison between 140 treated and 105 untreated patients, percent surviving against time after diagnosis. Data from Paton et al. (1978).
Fichier image/jpeg, 50k


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