Category Archives: EARA Blog

Drug trial breakthrough shows that Ebola is ‘no longer incurable’

EARA Executive Director, Kirk Leech, looks at the remarkable progress in biomedical research in the search for a cure for Ebola virus which has devastated parts of central Africa in the last year.

This week, marking the first anniversary of the most recent Ebola outbreak, scientists running a clinical trial of new drugs in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) have announced a dramatic increase in survival rates.

For countries, such as the DRC, Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone, Ebola is a serious health emergency. They are among the poorest countries in the world, only recently emerging from years of civil war and unrest that has left basic health infrastructures severely damaged or ruined. Living conditions are often restricted and unclean, water supplies are limited, medical treatment is scarce, and trust in officialdom, pretty much non-existent.

Massive underdevelopment and the attendant problem of political dysfunction have created a situation in which a virus like Ebola can flourish. Since 2014 a total of 28,616 cases of Ebola and 11,310 deaths were reported in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. This is what is driving research into finding a way to halt the spread of the disease

Now, thanks in part to research involving mice and non-human primates the sponsors of the current clinical trial in DRC have announced a real breakthrough. While an experimental vaccine that was proven to be effective in monkeys had previously been shown to shield people from catching Ebola, this new development marks a first for people who have already been infected.

Presenting evidence to the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United States National Institutes of Health (NIH), the trial’s co-sponsors, said that two of the four experimental treatments had cured 90 per cent of patients who were treated with them.

These therapies were pioneered by harvesting the antibodies from humanised mouse models that were exposed to proteins from the virus, which were then pharmacologically combined and studied with non-human primate models.

From now on, we will no longer say that Ebola is incurable. “These advances will help save thousands of lives,” said Prof Jean-Jacques Muyembe, the director general of the Institut National de Recherche Biomédicale in the DRC, which has overseen the trial.

Finding an effective treatment

Ebola, is a viral disease transmitted to people from wild animals and is thought to exist naturally in some fruit bat populations and can be transmitted to humans through bodily fluids of infected animals or the consumption of ‘bush meat.’ Once the virus is introduced to the human population it spreads through direct contact with the bodily fluids of infected people.

The DRC declared their tenth outbreak of Ebola in 40 years in August 2018. During the first eight months of the epidemic more than 1,000 cases of Ebola were reported in the affected region. However, between April and June 2019, this number has doubled, with a further 1,000 new cases reported in the last three months.

It is now by far the country’s largest-ever Ebola outbreak. It is also the second-biggest Ebola epidemic ever recorded, behind the West Africa outbreak of 2014-2016.

Starting in November 2018, patients in four treatment centres in the east of the DRC, where the outbreak rages, were randomly chosen to receive one of four investigational therapies – either an antiviral drug (Remdesivir) or one of three drugs that use monoclonal antibodies – Zmapp, mAb114 and REGN-EB3, a drug produced by Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, a US biotechnology company.

Drugs based on monoclonal antibodies are used to treat many types of cancer. The main objective of such treatments is stimulating the patient’s immune system to attack the malignant tumour cells and prevent tumour growth by blocking specific cell receptors. 

ZMapp is a cocktail of three antibodies that was first developed through research in mice and has been considered the standard of care during Ebola outbreaks. Researchers exposed mice to the Ebola virus, and the antibodies generated within the mice’s blood were then extracted.

ZMapp was tested and used during the devastating Ebola epidemic in West Africa in 2014, and the current goal was to see if the other drugs could surpass it. According to the NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID’s) the preliminary results were significant:

  • Patients receiving the monoclonal antibody cocktail REGN-EB2 had the biggest impact on lowering death rates, down to 29 percent.
  • NIAID’s monoclonal antibody, mAb114, had a mortality rate of 34 percent.
  • Patients receiving ZMapp in the four trial centres experienced an overall mortality rate of 49 percent.
  • The results were most remarkable for patients who received treatments shortly after becoming sick, death rates dropped to 24 percent with ZMapp, 11 percent with mAb114 and just six percent with REGN-EB3, compared with 33 percent with Remdesivir.
  • Mortality rates are in excess of 75 percent for infected individuals who don’t seek any form of treatment.

Future vaccine development

Compared with other viruses, Ebola has the ability to alter its shape and increase rapidly its area of infection, making it difficult for any single antibody to block its infection. That’s why a cocktail approach was chosen, like the Regeneron product – a combination of three monoclonal antibodies generated first in mice. However, this is an extremely laborious process, taking many years to produce the antibodies.

An even better solution, which may yet be in reach, would be to develop antibodies from an Ebola survivor, garnering the DNA from the white blood cells that make antibodies. This would produce antibodies already with a successful track record against the Ebola virus.

The virus can persist in a human for a very long time, for example one survivor still carried the virus in his semen 565 days after he recovered. That’s what mAb114 is – an antibody isolated from the blood of an Ebola survivor from the 1995 outbreak in the DRC. However, this persistence also suggests that is perhaps unrealistic to expect that we could ever eradicate this disease.

Nevertheless, the WHO announcement that a new trial directly comparing REGN-EB3 to mAb114 will soon begin and that all Ebola treatment units in the outbreak zone will now only administer the two most effective monoclonal antibody drugs is a significant step towards living with, and surviving the virus.


New EARA brochure published

The European Animal Research Association has published a new brochure to illustrate its work as an association and as the voice of the biomedical sector on the use of animals.

The brochure looks at the activities of EARA since its inception in 2014, its strategic goals and some key facts about animal research.

It was included in all the delegate bags at the recent FELASA Congress, in Prague, Czech Republic, in June – a total of 1,800. It was also available on EARA’s exhibition stand.


Insight into views of UK public with opinion poll on animal research

Around two thirds of the UK public accepts the use of animals for research where there is no alternative, according to a government survey for 2018.

But the newly released report also observed that one of the main characteristics the public attributes to animal research organisations remains “secrecy”.

The acceptability figure remains unchanged since 2014.

As well as asking about public acceptability of animal research the 2018 report on Public Attitudes to Animal Research, published by Office for Life Sciences, also looked at public awareness and public attitudes to regulation.

Public trust in the regulation of animal research in the UK remains at levels recorded in previous years, but awareness of government work on the “three Rs” remains low.

Interest in alternatives and the welfare of animals is high and has risen, but two thirds of the public do not feel well-informed about the use of animals in research.

Marking 50 years of biomedical research with minipigs

EARA member Ellegaard Göttingen Minipigs has marked 50 years of the company at its Scientific Symposium, in London, UK, which also looked at future biomedical research uses for its animal model.

After Lars Friis Mikkelsen (pictured), CEO of Ellegaard, opened the Symposium, a series of lectures explained the growth of the company and its long-term collaboration with the University of Göttingen, which originally bred the minipig, and examined the ways that the animal is used in toxicology testing. 

Peter Vestbjerg of Ellegaard, explained that the Göttingen Minipigs is a good non-rodent model due to the adaptability of the minipig and its well managed genetics.

Examples of how minipigs are being used to test toxicity on compounds under development for Alzheimer’s and for anti-cancer drug development were given by Joanna Harding of AstraZeneca, and Sally-Anne Reynolds of Sequani, respectively.

From the University of Edinburgh, Michael Eddleston focused on translational medicine between animals and humans and how we can modulate human self-poisoning in Göttingen minipig models. “Pigs do save lives”, he said.

Henrik Duelund Pedersen of Ellegaard, concluded the symposium by listing the specific advantages of mini pigs in studies for dermal toxicity and reproduction among others.

Besides the scientific context, the importance of communication about the benefits of animal research to the public was highlighted by Kirk Leech, EARA Executive Director, and Wendy Jarrett, Chief Executive of Understanding Animal Research.

EARA Executive Director, Kirk Leech, described the work of EARA in the promotion of openness and transparency across Europe as well as the opportunities for greater openness on communicating animal research.

Wendy Jarrett presented the main areas of action of UAR in the United Kingdom and explained why and how it is important engaging with the public, sharing ideas and shaping a supportive environment for the use of animals, such as minipigs.  

Further Ellegaard Scientific Symposiums are planned across Europe, including the 13th Minipig Research Forum on 22-24 May in Vienna, Austria. For more information follow the LinkedIn page and read the Newsletter.

Spanish initiative says ‘Animal Research Gives Life’

The Spanish Society for Laboratory Animal Sciences (SECAL) used World Day for Laboratory Animals (24 April), as an opportunity to communicate on animal research.

EARA Member SECAL, created a video (in Spanish) with examples on the benefits of the biomedical animal research.

The message in the video “La experimentación animal da vida” (Animal research gives life) was repeated by board members of SECAL.

Research institutions from Spain and Latin America (including EARA Spanish Twitter) shared the video on social media with the hashtag #LaExperimentaciónAnimaldaVida.

Sergi Vila of SECAL, said the video as “a very positive initiative”, especially on the eve of the general election in Spain, where the Animalist Party (PACMA) has called for the ending of animal research.

Ethics in the spotlight after pig brain revival

A debate has been stirred by news that neuroscientists have stimulated activity in the brain of pigs hours after their heads were removed.

The discovery performed at the Yale University School of Medicine, USA, has also highlighted potential limitations in the current regulations for animals used in research as argued in an article in Nature.

In an article in National GeographicKhara Ramos, of the U.S. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, asked if “the development and application of new neuro-technologies may require us to examine ethical standards, and for those standards to evolve”.

In The Guardian, ethical questions such as ‘How do we delimit consciousness in a brain removed from the body?’; ‘Is it possible to speak about consciousness in an isolated brain?’ were also raised.

Fruit fly research on prime time TV in Portugal

Portuguese TV news has highlighted the use of fruit flies (Drosophila melanogaster) as an animal research model at the labs of the Champalimaud Foundation

The institution, also an EARA members, is based in Lisbon, Portugal. and uses fruit flies in six of the 19 research groups to study cancer and neurosciences.

In the TV item (in Portuguese), Maria Luísa Vasconcelos, the Principal Investigator of Innate Behaviour Research Group, explained why the fruit fly is the ideal model to study innate behaviours: “We can work with very large numbers of animals because they are tiny and easy to keep”.

The Principal Investigator of Sensorimotor Integration Research Group, Eugenia Chiappe, also clarified how fruit fly is helping to understand how the brain controls our movements.

The Fly Platform is the facility that offers conditions for breeding, maintenance and manipulation, supporting scientists in establishing, applying and developing advanced genetic approaches.

The researchers explained that besides the size of the organism there are other advantages in using flies as a model. For example, the lower ethical and legal questions, the short generation time and the sophisticated tools available to manipulate the genome.

EARA Communications Handbook launched

A guide on how to develop and implement a communications strategy on the use of animals in research has been published by the European Animal Research Association (EARA).

A free hard copy of the EARA Communications Handbook (in English only, cover price €375), along with an encrypted electronic version has been distributed exclusively to EARA member organisations.

The Handbook is intended to be shared with in-house research and communications professionals and includes a step-by-step guide to developing a long-term communications strategy and other advice on actions you can take to encourage a more balanced public debate on the issue of animal research.

There is also practical communications advice on how to handle those crisis situations that may occur.

EARA Communications Manager, Bob Tolliday, said: “We encourage all EARA institutions across Europe to implement the recommendations outlined in this manual and to engage with EARA for further support or advice.”

Organisations that are not EARA members can purchase the Handbook or arrange to discuss communications further by contacting Kirk Leech.

Chancellor Merkel backs new German research centre

The Max Delbrück Center (MDC), an EARA member, welcomed German Chancellor Angela Merkel as she opened its new research building in Berlin.

The building hosts the Berlin Institute for Molecular Systems Biology (BIMSB), as a second MDC campus, committed to research excellence and openness.

It is anticipated that it will host 250 researchers and 16 labs in the near future (see video of the opening).

Setting the scene for different scientific disciplines – biotechnology, computational science, molecular biology, clinical research – BIMSB leader Professor Nikolaus Rajewsky (pictured second left) promised a ‘radical approach to collaboration’.  

Chancellor Merkel viewed a ‘mini-brain’ (brain organoid) through a microscope and started a single-cell sequencing process with a computer.

Germany statistics on 2017 animal use released

The total number of animals used in research in 2017 in Germany was 2.8 million, a similar level to 2015 and 2016, the latest figures reveal.

Germany is second only to the UK in its use of animals – in 2014, the total used was 3.3 million.

The figures, sent to the European Commission, show the vast majority of animals involved in the tests were rodents – 1.37 million mice and 255,000 rats.

Among other figures provided by the Ministry of Agriculture, 3,300 dogs and 718 cats were also used. 

German media focused (and in German) also on the rise in experiments using monkeys – up to 3,472 from 2,462 in the previous year.

Agriculture Minister Julia Klöckner, was quoted as saying: “I want the number of experiments on animals to be continuously reduced. Animals are fellow creatures and they deserve our sympathy.”