It’s been some time since we’ve written but we’ll now be getting back to regular updates. Last week’s big Nobel Prize announcement for medicine/physiology seemed the perfect opportunity to kick things off again. The award went to three scientists who discovered how cells in the body transport material – research with major potential implications for progress in areas like diabetes and brain disorders
So why is the Nobel Prize inspiring a blog, here? As with most Nobel Prize research, animal studies were integral to the researchers’ success. In this case, yeast, cows and genetically modified mice were involved in the research process. Looking back, nearly all Nobel Prizes in Physiology or Medicine have required some form of animal research. According to Americans for Medical Progress, in the past 34 years, all awards but one have been dependent on animal research.
The impact of this year’s prize-winning discovery could be big news for patients suffering from diabetes or brain disorders. The three researchers discovered that vesicles – membranous structures that store and transport cellular products – transport these materials to a precise target, similar to a fleet of ships. This is crucial to many processes – from the release of hormones in the body to brain communication. Defective vesicle transport systems are associated with diabetes and brain disorders – and knowing more about them could help us improve treatment options in these areas.
So congratulations to James Rothman, Randy Schekman and Thomas Sudhof for their Nobel Prize win, and for bringing research a step further.
What are your thoughts on the big Nobel Prize news? Let us know in the comments section below
– Douglas Adams
It had all been going so well. The path EU legislation must navigate is notoriously complex. Consultations, proposals, amendments – input from MEPs and compromises between national governments – the road is long and winding.
But for the EU’s directive on how animals are used in medical research, this lengthy process appeared to have produced a compromise which governments agreed would raise standards of animal welfare, reduce red tape by harmonising rules across Europe, and promote the 3Rs.
It was only when animal rights groups began to put pressure on airlines and ferry companies to stop transporting laboratory animals that this came to our attention.
Researchers are concerned that research on non-human mammals, as well as studies involving frogs, insects and fish, could be hampered if companies refuse to transport animals which will be used in labs. This, according to scientists, could even disrupt the fruit fly research used to study genetics.
The reasons for this are many and varied. For one thing, the low-hanging fruit was picked a couple of decades ago so the diseases for which we now need new therapies are the most difficult to treat. This requires a huge investment of time, effort and resources and call for a more collaborative approach to innovation.
For another thing, the cost of conducting research has risen at a time when the rewards are on the wane. A recipe for new drugs it is not.
Yet the world is facing fresh public health challenges due to shifts in demography and lifestyle. Our ageing population means conditions such as Alzheimer’s will become a much greater burden. At the same time diabetes rates are through the roof in develop – and in developing – countries across the world.
Medical research is a global endeavour regulated locally. Researchers move, patients move – even animals move (sometimes) – and ideas, of course care little for borders. But could more be done to agree common standards for animal research and for validating non-animal testing models?
Well, yes. International cooperation is climbing steadily up the agenda as scientists and policymakers from Europe, the US, China, Brazil and elsewhere share their views on how to support medical progress while making meaningful strides forward towards the 3Rs – reduction, refinement and replacement.
Much of the debate over the use of animal testing in drug development is a cocktail of facts, emotions and ethics. Regulators have tried to strike a balance between these factors in the forthcoming EU Directive 2010/63/EU, but there is still considerable pressure to stop animal testing altogether. What would happen to drug development, and where would it take place, if animal testing were banned? It’s difficult to find the ‘right’ answers, particularly when rare, or orphan, diseases are involved.
Orphan diseases, affect not more than 5 in 10000 people, With some 29 million sufferers in the EU;
The EU research budget – a major source of support for medical science – is under serious threat and could be about to fall victim to a much wider political spat over public spending.
As part of our ‘Shall it stay or shall it go?’ campaign we’ve been asking you about the future of animal research in Europe.
Well it seems that some of the scientists who work in this area have given their verdict: they want it to stay and are more than a little worried about what they see as myths around animal studies.
So, unless you’ve been living in a cave without wi-fi you’ll probably have heard that the European Union has be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
The EU also celebrated last week when Professor Serge Haroche, the recipient of a European Research Council (ERC) grant, picked up the Nobel Prize for Physics. Europe plans to increase ERC funding from €7.5 billion to €13 billion from 2012 to help “the very best researchers to conduct pioneering research across Europe”.
During the summer an Italian court ordered the temporary closure of one of Europe’s biggest dog breeding companies.
After an intense campaign by policymakers and animal rights groups, the Green Hill animal breeding firm closed its doors, having handed more than 2,500 dogs over to animal rights campaigners in line with the court ruling.
Activists – and plenty of ordinary tweeters who just love dogs – celebrated. If you almost never give much thought to animal research, a headline about dogs in Italy being saved rather than sacrificed looks like good news.
But could the Green Hill story prove to be a pyrrhic victory for animal rights campaigners?
Read the Europe 2020 strategy and the Innovation Union policy and the message from EU policymakers is clear. Europe says it needs to be in the Premier League of scientific R&D, not just because research delivers solutions that help improve our lives, but because we want to develop and produce things that have value; things people in the US, Japan, China and elsewhere will buy from us.
Rhetoric vs reality
But what is the reality behind the rhetoric? And is Europe sending mixed signals about its support for research?
In our research labs we use genetically altered animals, usually mice, to test scientific theories which we hope will one day lead to new medicines and treatments. In terms of my own work, we create mice with trisomy, which means they have an extra copy of a certain chromosome. In humans, trisomy 21, otherwise known as Down syndrome, is probably the most well-known of these conditions.
The goal is to find ways of alleviating the symptoms of these conditions. We look at how trisomy changes neurological mechanisms and how it influences embryonic development, stem cells, and the programming and function of cells. We identify and target these mechanisms and hope to treat them through therapeutic drugs. These mechanisms are often similar to those affecting humans with comparable conditions.
As European governments begin implementing EU rules on the use of animals in research, new figures reveal that the UK – a leading player in medical science – used more lab animals last year than at any time in the past three decades.
Some 3.8 million procedures were carried out on animals including dogs, cats, mice and monkeys last year, according to press reports.
The numbers are less important than the trend. The total figure is the highest since 1981.
A couple of months ago we had the privilege to go to Paris and interview Professor Jean-Claude Nouët, Honorary President and cofounder of the Ligue Francaise des Droits de l'Animal, éthique et science (LFDA).
During our two hours discussion, Professor Nouët touched on different aspects of the use of animals in scientific research, including alternatives and the 3Rs. We will be publishing parts of the interview over the coming weeks, however looking at your comments and questions over the past months, we thought the following topic was a good one to start with.
Where did the first half of this year go? In the world of European legislation, 2012 is a key milestone for the transposition of stricter legislation which will increase the protection and welfare of laboratory animals used for scientific purposes.
Post the adoption of Directive 2010/63/EU in September 2011, this law is now being translated and implemented at national level, across Europe.