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Ebola vaccine in use thanks to ‘curiosity-driven’ basic research

There was no known widespread outbreaks of Ebola when the vaccine was developed 15 years ago using animals, says Kirk Leech, EARA Executive Director.

There’s a worrying new Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) — the second the country has faced since the largest-ever Ebola virus epidemic swept West Africa from 2014 to 2015.

The World Health Organization (WHO) learned about the new outbreak in early May, but suspects that, since April, a total of 44 people have been infected with Ebola including 23 deaths. Three of the deaths involved health care workers.

The experimental vaccine was created by the Public Health Agency of Canada in 2003, the vaccine was shown to be effective in monkeys. However, because of a lack of pharmaceutical company interest before the West Africa outbreak, it literally sat on a shelf until it was licensed to Merck in 2014.

The Ebola vaccine, which it is hoped can stem the new outbreak, was developed when there was no public health emergency, and no known widespread outbreak of Ebola. There had only been 1500 cases registered world-wide in the previous three decades. The research involved, and the animals used, were essentially for curiosity-driven, basic research trying to understand, and not for some immediate clinical application.

Yes, we may now have an Ebola vaccine, but as important as this is, that’s not why the research using animals began. It began with a very human, but much maligned (especially when animals are involved) intellectual pursuit to better understand what keeps humans and animals alive and healthy.

Ebola is a viral disease that is transmitted to people from wild animals. The virus is thought to exist naturally in some fruit bats and can be transmitted to humans through bodily fluids of infected animals or through the consumption of ‘bush meat.’ Once the virus is introduced to the human population it spreads through direct contact with bodily fluids of infected people. Symptoms such as fever and bleeding from orifices can be seen after four to ten days, few people survive contact.

 

Supporting excellent biomedical science in Europe

The first FEAM European Biomedical Policy Forum annual lecture took place in Brussels, in March, dedicated to the topic Biomedical and health research: developing a vision for Europe.

The Forum is an initiative from the Federation of European Academies of Medicine (FEAM) and aims to bring together representatives from academia, research charities, industry, European and national trade associations and professional bodies, regulators, public health bodies, and patient and consumers groups. Among the topics discussed were: thematic priorities for future research; linkage with the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs); research missions; current gaps in support; and how to improve coordination and consolidation of research programmes across Europe.

This  is  an  important  time  for  European  health  policy  and  for  sustaining  biomedical  research  and innovation. The forthcoming EU Framework Programme for Research and Innovation, FP9, provides a critical opportunity for stakeholders across the biomedical and health sectors to discuss their research vision and priorities for Europe, linkage with global goals, and defining approaches to closing gaps in support and to promoting coordination of effort.

Dr Line Matthiessen of the European Commission (DG Research and Innovation) provided valuable insight into the drivers for prioritising biomedical and health research objectives in FP9. These drivers include: the challenges facing society, for example in terms of health and care costs, inequalities and environmental factors; and the need to  promote  innovative  industry  competitiveness.  There  is  also  the  opportunity  to capitalise  on  previous  achievements  in  funding  programmes  associated  with  the  development  of human capital (including in cross-sectoral collaborative initiatives) and the paramount requirement to deliver impact.

Recent proposals to increase mission-oriented approaches in FP9 are very relevant to health research: successful characteristics of a mission orientation were illustrated by the work of a consortium on rare diseases in Horizon 2020 (i.e. the International Rare Diseases Research Consortium – IRDiRC). Increased impact can be anticipated if the scientific community and other stakeholders are mobilised to address shared goals.

High-level experts from academia, industry and patient groups then responded with their perspectives on the vision for  FP9.  For example,  there  were  suggestions  for  other  health  research  missions  with potential  for  EU  added  value  to  address  unmet  medical  needs  in  the  fields  of  dementia,  infectious diseases/antimicrobial  resistance,  and  mental  health.  Among the  many  significant  issues  arising  in discussion was an emphasis on the importance of:

  • Continuing the use   of   animals   in scientific   research.   Despite   progress   in   developing alternatives,  well-regulated  animal  models  are  still  needed  to  provide  biological  insight  and help to tackle unmet medical needs.
  • Continuing commitment to basic, discovery science (investigator – driven, bottom up ideas) at a time of increasing attention to translational science: ensuring a balance between mission-oriented and fundamental research.
  • Addressing the challenges of transdisciplinary in a culture where many academics still work in silos: this may require new incentives but is essential to enable innovation and deliver more integrated approaches to health management.
  • Harnessing the combined skills of academia and industry in partnerships that will also include health services and patients. There is considerable scope to facilitate all stakeholders working together to identify research   priorities and clarify research design, increasing patient representation throughout research. Scientific and clinical communities must augment their efforts to engage with patients and the public to understand their priorities for unmet medical needs.
  • Exploring how to improve collaboration  across  the  large  part  of  health  research  that  is currently organised and funded at a national level. The proposed European Council for Health Research may help in underpinning coordination and synergy,  and act as a single point of entry for all health research. There is a broad agenda for co-ordination in addition to funding. There  will  be  new  challenges  for  maintaining  the  essential mobility of scientists and  their families  and  for  building  multilateral  partnerships  in  Europe. Education  and  training  must incorporate   the   acquisition of  new  complementary skills for researchers and health professionals,  for  example transdisciplinary and  the  capacities for interpreting and  using large data sets.
  • Developing future healthcare systems for people-centred quality care with the focus shifting to health rather than disease and entailing new understanding of multimorbidity and of early pathogenesis. Among the requirements, this transformation calls for renewed commitment to digital health and digital infrastructure, with implications for training and research.

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May 2018

Another year of medical achievements thanks to animal research

A look back by EARA at some of the important discoveries in recent times

The last year has once again seen an impressive list of medical achievements globally, as scientists find better treatments for devastating diseases.

Among the breakthroughs reported are:

  • Human trials are now closer for an Ebola vaccine with a team at UW–Madison School of Veterinary aiming to produce an experimental vaccine (March 2018) that has already been proven to work safely in monkeys.
  • Researchers at University College London have announced (Dec 2017) that there is now hope for a way to stop Huntington’s disease, described as the biggest breakthrough in neurodegenerative diseases in 50 years.
  • 2017 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine awarded with help of fruit fly (drosophila) study. The discoveries of the group of scientists who worked on the project show how plants, animals and humans co-ordinate their biological rhythms with the Earth’s daily cycle.

EARA Executive Director, Kirk Leech, said: “There is no doubt that we would not see the remarkable advances in biomedical research that have occurred recently, without the use of animals.

“While alternative methods to animal research, such as computer models and cell cultures are important, testing using animals remains the safest and most effective way to produce drugs and treatments for us all.”

Animal research is integral to ongoing research in areas such as spinal cord repair, stem cell treatments (Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s), gene therapy (muscular dystrophy, diabetes) and molecularly targeted cancer medicines.

Historically, animal research has also led to new diagnostic tests for early treatment (cancer, heart disease); and effective treatments for serious illnesses (diabetes, leukemia, HIV/AIDS, cardiovascular disease).

The same research often helps humans and animals (treatments for arthritis, neurological disorders, organ transplants, cancer therapies) and contributes to farm animal welfare and techniques to save endangered species.

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Max Delbrück Center stands in support of important research study

A world-renowned German biomedical research institution has responded strongly to criticism from an activist group that has targeted one of its researchers.

Activist group Ärzte gegen Tierversuche (Doctors Against Animal Experiments) protested about the research of Prof. Gary Lewin and his team, at the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine (MDC), Berlin, describing it as ‘absurd’.

MDC has now hit back with Martin Lohse, CEO of MDC, explaining that while criticism is part of science, personally defaming researchers is ‘unacceptable’.

“We carry out our research in the interest of the sick, the elderly and children – groups that do not have a sufficient lobby. Discovering and exploring new therapeutic options for them corresponds to both our state and social mission, ” Mr Lohse added.

Prof Lewin’s study of naked mole rats (and also Süddeutsche Zeitung) seeks to help protect the heart and brain of patients after infarction and stroke by studying how these animals survive in oxygen starved conditions.

The team put mole rats in pure nitrogen, with no oxygen at all. This kills mice in about a minute. People pass out after a breath or two of pure nitrogen, and would probably die in under 10 minutes. The naked mole rats, however, survived for at least 18 minutes. They stopped breathing after a few minutes, but their hearts kept beating and as soon as they were put back in normal air they revived.

Asked in an interview by Pro-Test Deutschland about how he reacted to criticism about animal research Prof Lewiin (pictured) said: “I try not to take attacks personally. However, if criticism is factually and technically advanced, we should take it seriously and offer a dialogue.

“The public has a right to information and we try to answer questions. However, the German animal protection laws are already very good and we have to overcome significant hurdles and comply with very high standards in order to obtain approval for our planned experiments.”

Otmar D. Wiestler, President of the Helmholtz Association, spoke further about its work: “As the largest science organization in Germany, the Helmholtz Association makes important contributions to the solution of urgent questions from society, science and industry.”

“In our health research area, we develop innovative diagnostic and treatment procedures for complex diseases such as cancer, cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s for the benefit of many. Animal experiments are a necessary and indispensable part of many questions.

Our researchers always encounter animals with the highest ethical responsibility. For example, we carefully evaluate the scientific question before each experiment and clarify whether experiments on animals are really essential.

At a joint conference of the British animal welfare organization RSPCA and the MDC in the autumn of 2017, experts from all over Europe discussed how to reduce particularly stressful animal experiments in Europe. At the MDC in Berlin, only a fraction of the animal tests in 2016 fell under the category “heavy burden” (0.8 %)

“We believe the results of animal testing will enable us all to live longer and healthier lives. At the present time, we can only answer many questions with the help of animal experiments, “says Martin Lohse. “Not everyone shares our opinion. We have to accept that. But respectful interaction with each other is essential in this discussion. “

Scientists in Europe must take more responsibility for openness, says EARA executive director

Openness and transparency surrounding the use of animals in research is ‘still an Achilles Heel’ for the biomedical sector, a roundtable hosted by the Federation of European Academies of Medicine (FEAM) last week has heard.

Speaking at the meeting, EARA Executive Director, Kirk Leech, said: “The zeitgeist is openness and transparency for the biomedical sector, but this is still an Achilles Heel for many European institutions.”

The meeting in Brussels, brought together high-level representatives from bodies such as the European Brain Council, European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations, European Society for Laboratory Animal Veterinarians, Federation of European Neuroscience Societies, Federation for Laboratory Animal Science Associations, and Understanding Animal Research, to discuss how to implement EU Directive 2010/63, on the use of animals in scientific research, as effectively as possible.

Kirk Leech identified a number of areas where the implementation of the Directive could be improved to help a better understanding by the general public, including the presentation of annual animal statistics and the quality of the Non-Technical Summaries, provided when seeking a licence to carry out research using animals.

He added: “Scientists play a key role in openness as the general public is more likely to listen to their opinions above those of healthcare bodies or the activists.

“Yes, the message also needs to be communicated by patient groups and charities, but the biomedical sector is in no position to ask these groups to be open when we are not yet fully open ourselves.”

The roundtable, which included Susanna Louhimies, EU Policy Co-ordinator at DG Environment, agreed that the Directive was the best way to bring about the safe and effective use of animals in scientific research and also discussed how to improve education and training for the biomedical sector, the role of national animal welfare bodies and the reproducibility of study results.

FENS Forum to discuss openness and communications on animal research

Details have been released on the session on animal research communications that will take place at this year’s FENS Forum of Neuroscience, in Berlin, 7-11 July.

Featuring EARA Executive Director, Kirk Leech, the special interest event entitled Communicating Animal Research: Challenges and Opportunities, looks at how neuroscientists can counter opposition to their research work using animals from activist groups.

The biomedical research sector has often been hesitant and defensive in its response and the event will explain how proactive communications, and openness on animal research can encourage public trust.

Also on the programme of speakers at the event, will be Wolf Singer of the Ernst Strüngmann Institute for Neuroscience (an EARA member) and Cristina Marquez, of the Institute of Neuroscience, Alicante, Spain. FENS, is the voice of European neuroscience and represents close to 23,000 European neuroscientists and the Forum will be its major event this year.

Kirk Leech (right) said: “There is a growing understanding in the biomedical research sector that being more open and transparent about the use of animals in research can improve public understanding and acceptance, however the need for a collective commitment, including better information to the media and the general public is also important.

Wolf Singer (right) will talk on the Ethical Implications of Animal Experimentation in Basic Research. He looks at how the acquisition of knowledge has an ethical value in itself despite the difficulty of proving that the expected gain of knowledge will contribute directly to the alleviation of conditions that cause suffering.

In Cristina Marquez’s talk, Neuroscience Outreach for +3 to 99 year-old, she shares her personal experiences of organising outreach activities for all ages, communicating her research in social decision-making in rodents.

The event will take place on Sunday, 8 July, 12:30-13:30.

Brain Prize winner emphasises essential need for animal research into Alzheimer’s

Basic researchers into Alzheimer disease awarded major scientific prize

Today it was announced that the 2018 Brain Prize will be awarded to Bart De Strooper (VIB, KU Leuven and University College London), Michel Goedert (University of Cambridge), Christian Haass (DZNE, Ludwig-Maximilians-University) and John Hardy (UCL) for their groundbreaking research on the genetic and molecular basis of Alzheimer’s disease.

The four researchers will share the 1 million EUR prize awarded by the Lundbeck Foundation.
This year’s Brain Prize winners have made essential contributions, in basic research, to the genetic and molecular knowledge of Alzheimer’s, mapping new avenues for the diagnosis, treatment and possibly even prevention of this neurodegenerative disorder. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia, affecting approximately 30 million people worldwide.

Accepting his prize, Prof. Bart De Strooper, who is also the new Director of the UK Dementia Research Institute, and professor at UCL, as well as VIB and KU Leuven, Belgium (both EARA members) made a strong case for the need for animal research.

“Animal rights activists often talk about alternatives, but there is no in vitro model for brain function. We can’t study dementia in a dish and there is no way around testing new medication in a living organism. Yet people without any research experience keep spreading half-truths to mislead the public opinion,” he said.

Prof. De Strooper was also pleased that the Brain Prize had underscored the importance of basic neuroscience: “The Brain Prize recognises that basic science makes a real contribution, even though it cannot always be directly applied to clinical care.”

“The Prize is an important sign for young scientists to know that they can still make big discoveries, and that we urgently need them to pursue research into diseases of the ageing brain.”

Professor Anders Bjorklund, chairman of the Lundbeck Foundation Brain Prize selection committee, said, “Alzheimer´s disease is one of the most devastating diseases of our time and remarkable progress has been made during the last decades. These four outstanding European scientists have been rewarded for their fundamental discoveries unravelling molecular and genetic causes of the disease.

The award recognises that there is more to Alzheimer´s disease than amyloid, and that the field of dementia research is more than Alzheimer´s disease alone.”
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Germany sees 7% rise in animal research procedures in 2016

This article first appeared in Speaking of Research 06/02/18

Germany’s Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture (Bundesministerium für Ernährung und Landwirtschaft) has produced its 2016 annual statistics on animal research procedures for Germany. These statistics have seen some big changes from previous years and we will attempt to show comparisons according to the different methodologies used. Germany produces two sets of data as part of the Animal Protection Act.

  • 7(2) – procedures on animals
  • 4(3) – animals killed solely for tissues or organs without any prior procedures

A mouse procedure

Historically, Germany has used data from animals used under both §7(2) and §4(3) of the Animal Protection Act to create a dataset of animals used in research. This dataset was broken down by varying categories including use, severity, genetic status and more. This year, while the old totals can be seen, the main datasets are numbers of procedures on animals, excluding animals killed for tissues or organs (under §4(3)). This newer methodology puts Germany in line with the EU reporting requirements for animals in research – allowing for easier comparisons between countries.

In 2016, Germany reported 2,189,261 procedures on animals, up 7.1% from 2015. The number of animals is slightly lower at 2,131,448 (due to some animals being used in more than one procedure during 2016). Continue reading

Three cheers for China’s cloned monkeys

The cloning of primates is a great scientific breakthrough.

Academic and author Stuart Derbyshire hails the scientific possibilities of the successful cloning of non-human primates in China.

It’s likely that you have heard of ‘Dolly’ the sheep, famously announced as the first mammal ever to be successfully cloned, in February 1997 (Dolly was born in July 1996). Dolly was a product of Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer (SCNT), which involved taking an adult cell from the udder of a female sheep and using the nucleus from that cell to replace the nucleus of an egg from another female sheep. The egg was successfully encouraged to fuse with the new nucleus using electric shocks and then began to divide as would a normal embryo. The fused egg was implanted into a third female sheep for gestation. Dolly, bizarrely, had three mothers, and was a genetic clone of the mother who donated the udder cells.

Last week, scientists from Shanghai’s Chinese Academy of Sciences Institute of Neuroscience reported that they had used a similar SCNT technique to clone two macaque monkeys – called Zhong Zhong and Hua Hua. Cloning of animals by SCNT had been previously reported in 23 other mammal species, including mice, cattle, pigs, rats, cats and dogs, but had never before been reported in a primate species. The relative genetic closeness of humans and monkeys has generated a lot of hand-wringing and concerns about the now nearer possibility of human cloning.

Most reports have, however, downplayed that possibility. The eventual birth of Zhong Zhong and Hua Hua followed the production of 260 early embryos, resulting in 43 pregnancies of which 41 failed. Such failure rates would not be tolerated as reasonable to produce human offspring. Also, the SCNT technique used to produce Zhong Zhong and Hua Hua were only successful with cells taken from foetal, rather than adult tissue. The attempts made with adult tissue all failed. Although we do have a primate clone, therefore, we still do not have a primate clone generated from adult cells as was the case for Dolly. That makes the prospect of cloning as a fertility treatment, and more fanciful suggestions of rearing a clone of an adult or recently deceased relative, currently distant. Continue reading