Yesterday I learned some sad news via the Understanding Animal Research blog, that a young woman named Laura Cowell had died, succumbing to cystic fibrosis at the age of just 25. To see a life so full of promise end so prematurely is always sad, but what makes this death so gutting is that Laura is one medical research’s heroes. I never met Laura, but back in the bad old days a decade ago – when the animal rights extremist campaign against medical research in the UK was at its height – she had the courage to stand up and voice public support for the animal research that is so crucial to progress against diseases such as cystic fibrosis. For this Laura and her mother Vicky, who chaired the now-disbanded (after a job well done!) patient advocacy group Seriously Ill for Medical Research, have my unwavering respect and admiration.
In an article in the Times yesterday science correspondent Mark Henderson wrote about Laura’s bravery:
Most researchers who worked with animals were reluctant to fight back. Their fears were far from unreasonable: Professor Colin Blakemore, one of the few to have done so, was repaid with letter bombs addressed to his children. Politicians deplored the threats while doing nothing about them. Cravenly, the governing Labour Party dropped HLS shares from its pension fund portfolio, and Blakemore was blackballed for a knighthood because of his “controversial” stance on vivisection.
It was against this background that a 16-year-old girl decided to speak out. Laura Cowell was born with cystic fibrosis, and took 40 pills a day to keep her illness and its complications at bay. “I rattle,” she used to joke. Animal research, however, she took seriously. Drugs developed through vivisection were keeping her alive. In 2002, she agreed to front a campaign that aimed to explain the benefits of animal experiments, as living proof of their contribution to medicine. ”
As Mark points out it was the willingness of people like Laura Cowell and Colin Blakemore to speak out, despite the threat from extremists and petty insults from more mainstream animal rights groups, in favour of animal research that turned the tide of public opinion in the UK favour of animal research, culmination in Laurie Pycroft’s stand against animal rights extremists in Oxford and the founding of Pro-Test.
Ipsos-MORI polls show unconditional support for animal research has almost doubled since 1999, and growing trust in the regulations that govern it. In 2005, laws against harassment were introduced and a police extremism unit was tasked with targeting violent activists. As ringleaders were jailed, the intimidation stopped. The Oxford lab was built. A climate of fear no longer threatens an important branch of British science. ”
Mark then goes on to criticize the failure of some medical research charities to respond to a recent attempt by the animal rights group Animal Aid to persuade people to stop donating to medical research charities (at a time of declining income for many charities because of the recession) that support animal research, which focused on the British Heart Foundation (BHF), Cancer Research UK (CRUK), the Alzheimer’s Society and Parkinson’s UK. I’m not sure that Mark is being fair, the BHF (who also highlight animal research in a new campaign), CRUK and Parkinson’s UK all issued strong statements explaining the value of animal research to their work, and while the Alzheimer’s Society didn’t issue a specific statement on this occasion they frequently discuss animal research in their research news and in 2010 wrote in a position statement that:
However, the Alzheimer’s Society and its trustees believe that funding medical research with animals remains essential if we are ultimately going to understand the causes of dementia and develop effective treatments.”
It is clear that medical charities in the UK are increasingly prepared to stand up for the importance of animal research to medical progress, something that is very refreshing to those of us who remember how things were a decade ago, and as Mark points out medical charities are uniquely well placed to act as advocates for animal research due to the respect and admiration that the public have for their work. For this sea change in attitudes towards animal research in the UK we have to thank the courage of individuals like Laura Cowell.
So how should we honor Laura?
We have discussed the contribution of animal research to the development of existing therapies – and future cures – for cystic fibrosis research on the Speaking of Research Blog in a couple of occasions, including the promising research being undertaken by the UK Cystic Fibrosis Gene Therapy Consortium. The consortium is planning to launch in 2012 the first ever clinical trial to examine if gene therapy can improve lung function in people with cystic fibrosis, using a vector whose development relied on information obtained from studies in mice, and which has already had promising results in a pilot study in CF patients. This clinical trial is being supported by the Cystic Fibrosis Trust who recently launched a fundraising campaign to raise the £6 million required to pay for the trial.
Laura Cowell died before gene therapy for cystic fibrosis could become a reality in the clinic, but there are many cystic fibrosis patients alive today – and many more yet to be born – who may in future benefit from it.
So I invite you to remember Laura by making a donation to the Cystic Fibrosis Trust – Gene Therapy fund.