Five years ago newspaper reports of medical breakthroughs rarely mentioned the animal research that had played a part in creating a medicine or treatment. These articles would usually state that 'laboratory tests' or 'previous research' had shown results positive enough for scientists to contemplate clinical trials in humans. Those of us involved in trying to explain the role of animal research to the public spent long hours trying to persuade university press officers to outline the animal research in their press releases, and journalists to report it.
It is so heartening to see the positive results of those long hours: a look at coverage in national papers over just two days last week shows three major 'medical progress' stories, all crediting the animal research that informed them. The Times reported that research in mice held out hope for people with the inherited condition muscular dystrophy and the Daily Telegraph explained that research looking at mouse brains suggests that a high-protein diet may be linked to Alzheimer's disease. The next day various papers including The Times reported that uterus transplants could be a future possibility thanks to research carried out on rabbits.
Talking openly about animal studies helps to place them in their proper context – vital, sometimes early, steps in a long journey towards improving scientific understanding and human (and often animal) health. Including the details of how we are able to progress along this journey helps to normalise animal research. It helps to dispel the myth that pioneering medical research can take place without some animal research.
Of course, there is still some reticence about opening the doors of biomedical research establishments to all and any members of the press. But a recent editorial in the leading science journal Nature stresses that misrepresentations are rare, and counsels that not engaging the media is not a good response. If you are contacted by the media and want to check that the approach is genuine, Understanding Animal Research can check for you. We know that most journalists are simply trying to report the facts and, equally, scientists have a duty to talk about their work.
Bad journalism is best met with good journalism, Nature says. We agree. We are already seeing the results of more openness – we all need to continue to talk about the role animal research plays in medical progress.