Creative fund-raising and animal experimentation have engineered a breakthrough in curing the dreaded disease of ALS. But expect animal activists to empathize with the poor, suffering mice.

Even if you were literally living under a rock last summer, you probably participated in, heard about or at least were aware of the Ice Bucket Challenge.

By leveraging two of the most powerful forces in the universe — social media and peer pressure — the challenge got people to pledge a donation to ALS research if they could withstand getting a big bucket of ice water dumped on their heads.

The concept was clever and phenomenally successful: more than $221 million worldwide has been raised to support research on ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease, a progressive neurodegenerative disease that disables and eventually kills its victims. In fact, the average lifespan of someone with ALS is only two to five years. Basically, a diagnosis of ALS was a slow-motion death sentence.

Until now.

According to a story in The Washington Post, scientists are crediting the money raised by the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge with supporting a major breakthrough in the search for a treatment.

And guess what? The research wasn’t done on a computer, as those enlightened PETA-types always insist is all that’s needed for the progress of medicine. Not at all.

Researchers at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine told the Post that the campaign provided the financial stability needed to facilitate “high risk, high reward” experiments — using mice.

In a study recently published in Science, the researchers detailed how in mice cells, TDP-43, which is supposed to decode DNA, can break down and become unable to do so. However, when a special protein designed to mimic TDP-43 is inserted into the neurons, the nerve cells return to normal. According to the story, the findings “have sparked hopes that the treatment could be used to slow or even halt” the progress of ALS.

 “Without [the Ice Bucket Challenge], we wouldn’t have been able to come out with the studies as quickly as we did,” Philip Wong, who led the research team leader, told the newspaper. “The money came at a critical time when we needed it.”

As is true with all animal experiments investigating treatments for human diseases, the next step is to conduct additional experiments to see if the TDP-43-like protein could be used as to treat a living mouse, not just at a cellular level. Beyond that, human trials.

But first, mice.

Research beyond ALS

I would love to hear what the PETA lovers would say to someone who is either suffering from ALS or has a loved one struck by the disease, only to be told that no further progress can be made toward a cure because it might impact some innocent little mouse.

I can’t even imagine what kind of argument would resonate with any of the more than 15,000 Americans with ALS, who, absent a medical breakthrough, are painfully waiting to die. This may be especially true for the totally lame you-could-use-a-computer-model card, which activists try to play when they lump legitimate medical research using lab animals in with their warped descriptions of "factory farming."

And here’s one more thought related to the ice bucket-funded ALS research: It’s not just for Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

Wong and his team told The Washington Post that understanding the protein mechanisms involved in ALS could lead to treatments for Alzheimer’s or muscular dystrophy, two other horribly debilitating conditions for which no effective treatment exists.

“The lesson that we learned can be applied to other human diseases," Wong told the Post. “There’s a much greater number of people affected by this.”

Far more than the number of self-deluded activists who cling to the idea that the world would be wonderful if only all animals not a member of Homo sapiens could spend their lives running free through some Disneyesque wilderness.

Too bad no one with ALS could ever join them. □

Dan Murphy is a food-industry journalist and commentator