Talking to the public about animal research

22 July 2014

Posted by: Tom Holder

Category: Staff blog

microphone.jpgTom Holder, Campaigns Manager, discusses a recent event hosted by the AMRC on how charities can improve their communications about animal research with the public.

The Association of Medical Research Charities (AMRC) recently organised a gathering of science communicators from a variety of charity members to discuss the question of “Talking about animal research”. Many medical research charities have already signed the Concordat on Openness on Animal Research in the UK, and there is an increasing movement by charities to explain why they fund or conduct research on animals.

The event was kicked off by Dr Andy Clempson, from the AMRC, who provided an overview of the amount of animal research in the UK and the reasons why it remains important to the understanding and treatment of diseases. Dr Clempson noted that by November 2014, all AMRC members will be required to have a statement on their website about the use of animals in research.

Claire Bale, from Parkinson’s UK, explained some of the different techniques that Parkinson’s UK researchers use, and their advantages and disadvantages.

Post-Mortem Human TissueSee human Parkinson’s by analysing post-mortem human brain tissueAs the patient is dead researchers are unable to see the development of the disease
Human StudiesCan study the development of the disease using modern scanning techniquesThe limits of modern scanning techniques means only so much information can be gained
Animal StudiesPuts the disease in the context of the whole organism and allows variable-controlled studiesAnimals do not get Parkinson’s naturally
Cell StudiesStudying brain cells in a dish allows easier access to changes at a cellular levelCannot recreate a whole brain in a petri dish
Computer modelsCan recreate models of the brain to run tests onComputer modelling techniques are still in their infancy and limited by our understanding of the brain

As we can see, animal research is just one of a multitude of techniques – each used where they are the most appropriate to answer the scientific questions being asked. Claire mentioned the animal research that led to L-Dopa – still one of the most prescribed Parkinson’s treatments today. Arvid Carlsson (who later won a Nobel Prize for his research) studied dopamine levels in rabbits and found not only that reduced dopamine levels resulted in Parkinson’s-like symptoms, but that administering L-Dopa could restore dopamine levels at alleviate the symptoms.

arvid_carlsson.jpgNobel Prize winner, Arvid Carlsson

Both Fiona Fox of the Science Media Centre (SMC) and Ben Kolb from the British Heart Foundation (BHF) gave examples of the benefits of proactive communication about animal research. In 2006, the SMC held the first press briefing to accompany the publication of the Home Office’s annual animal research statistics, something which has now become an annual event. Fiona also applauded the proactive outreach by Leicester University when it let BBC cameras into its brand new animal research facility when it opened – resulting in a lot of positive coverage. Ben focused on the positive approach the BHF has taken when discussing animal research – even when animal rights groups had been orchestrating thousands of emails, postcards and tweets to them. The BHF took great pains to respond to every email to explain why they felt animal research remained an important part of their research funding (They also fund important studies using non-animal methods).

Craig Brierley of Cambridge University provided a university perspective – offering case studies of universities mentioning the animal research they conduct. These included Newcastle University’s research using spinal cord stimulation to treat paralysis in monkeys and Oxford University inviting BBC’s Fergus Walsh to film inside the Oxford biomedical facility. Craig encouraged the attending charities to work with their patients to discuss the animal research they conduct– using UAR and Genetic Alliance UK’s Patient Discovery days as an example of a good model.

Dermot McCann, from Support4RS, and Helen Matthews, from Cure Parkinson’s Trust (CPT), looked at risk management as they discussed an animal rights campaign against the CPT. The big lesson from this presentation was the importance of contacting organisations like Understanding Animal Research, the SMC and Support4RS to get help and support regarding the animal research issue.

The final session featured Ed Sykes, from the SMC, interviewing Tom Feilden, science and environment correspondent on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme. Tom explained that animal research needs to be a normal part of the conversation about biomedical breakthroughs. When asked by Ed for his 3 biggest wishes from press officers in the room, Tom declared: “Open access at the drop of a hat … greater openness … and a cup of tea”.

We thank the AMRC for hosting this great event and hope that everyone went away with new ideas on how they can proactively discuss animal research with their peers and the public.

Tom Holder