Now for the good news
UK newspapers these days are full of political sleaze, economic woes and minor celebrities. But there is some good news too. Both The Observer and The Sunday Times this weekend carried prominent stories of medical breakthroughs achieved by British scientists.
Nothing unusual in that, but it was interesting to see that both stories credited the animal research that had informed the progress towards the potential human therapies. Even just a few years ago, journalists often referred to ‘laboratory tests’ rather than reporting fully the part that animal research plays in medical progress.Including a few words about the in vivo research places animal research in context for the general public reading these stories, and helps to normalise it.
In The Observer, Robin McKie reported on a potential inhaled gene therapy for cystic fibrosis, a condition that affects around 8,000 young people in the UK. Although improvements in our understanding of this disease and the advent of antibiotics in the middle of the last century mean that sufferers no longer die in infancy, there is still no cure. It has taken almost 20 years, since the isolation of the gene at fault in CF in 1989, to develop the treatment that is currently undergoing human safety trials.
The research, carried out by the UK Cystic Fibrosis Gene Therapy Consortium, based in London, Edinburgh and Oxford has been funded by the Cystic Fibrosis Trust. It is hoped that a full clinical trial will start by the end of next year. Genetically modified mice have played a large part in trying out various potential treatments. And sheep have also been used to model the way an inhaled therapy works, as their lungs are of a similar size to human lungs.
Across at The Sunday Times, Sarah-Kate Templeton reported on a potential treatment for age-related macular degeneration, which causes the loss of eye cells and can result in blindness. It currently affects around half a million people in this country. The research, carried out at University College London's Institute of Ophthalmology and Moorfields Eye Hospital, involves replacing a layer of degenerated cells with new ones made from embryonic stem cells. The research has so far involved rats and pigs. Clinical trials should start within the next two years.
Reading the comments that follow The Sunday Times article shows how far we have come in seeing animal research as a normal part of the research process: not one of the 65 comments questions the use of animals. Instead the debate is mostly about the fact that embryonic stem cells are being used.