If you have watched any British TV channels in the past week or two, you may have seen the excellent ads produced by the British Heart Foundation (BHF) as part of a major fundraising drive to support their new Mending Broken Hearts campaign.
The Mending Broken Hearts campaign is a major new multidisciplinary initiative which seeks to harness the power of regenerative medicine to better treat, and one day cure, heart failure. If you want to learn more about this work, the BHF website has information on the science behind the initiative, and why their scientists are studying zebrafish.
It is an ambitious and fascinating project, and an excellent example of how the differences between species can be as valuable to medical advancement as the similarities.
But that’s not all that is striking about this campaign.
This is a fundraising campaign by a major medical research charity that not only acknowledges the importance of animal research, but places it centre stage. Little more than a decade ago that would have been unthinkable in the UK.
When I first started my career in science in the late 1990’s public support for animal research in the UK was considerably lower than it is now, and few scientists willing to discuss their work in public or counter the misleading propaganda of animal rights activists. Animal rights extremists appeared to be able to harass, intimidate and coerce at will, using tactics such as hate mail, vandalism, arson, grave robbing and violence to force several animal breeders to close, and even contributing to a decision by Cambridge University to abandon plans to construct a new primate laboratory in 2004. As the 21st century dawned the future of biomedical research in the UK looked very bleak.
But behind the scenes things were changing. The tireless efforts of research advocacy groups including RDS and the Coalition for Medical Progress (now merged to form Understanding Animal Research ), Sense about Science, and Seriously Ill for Medical Research, who spoke up for animal research and countered the distortions spread by animal research, and the bravery of individuals including the Oxford neuroscientist Professor Colin Blakemore and patient activist Andrew Blake, who continued to speak out in support of animal research despite threats against themselves and their families, began to yield dividends. As time went on more and more scientists were persuaded to discuss the role of animal research in their work in more detail when talking to journalists, rather than referring obliquely to “laboratory studies”, and by the middle of the decade opinion polls indicated that public support for the use of animals in medical research had increased dramatically. Politicians also began to wake up to the threat posed to science in the UK by animal rights extremism, and the danger that other unrepresentative minorities might adopt the tactics of animal rights extremists to foist their views on the rest of society: Something had to be done. A series of laws were passed to prevent intimidation and harassment being used as campaign tools, while for the first time sufficient resources were made available to police units to counter domestic extremism.
The tide finally turned in the spring of 2006 when hundreds of citizens, scientists, students in Oxford joined together under the banner of Pro-Test to march in support the construction of a new animal research laboratory. Responding to threats by animal rights extremists, and inspired by the example set by Laurie Pycroft, the marchers showed that they would not be silenced and would not be intimidated. That rally, and the widespread coverage it received in national and international news media, released a pent-up wave of support from animal research that almost instantly changed the tenor of the debate on animal research in the UK. The new Oxford laboratory was completed in 2008.
Now five years later many of the animal rights extremists whose terror campaigns made the lives of so many people a misery are behind bars, and scientists are more willing than ever before to talk about the contribution of animal research to medical progress.
So the zebrafish are not just an example of the promise of 21st century medicine, but show us that if scientists and supporters of science stand together we can defeat extremism, we can counter the lies and distortions spread by animal rights campaigns, and we can secure the future of scientific medicine. That’s a lot of hope for such a small fish.