The 21st Century Scientist

Earlier today we discussed some of the characteristics of the animal rights crank, so it’s perhaps appropriate that an award announced earlier this week has highlighted the best qualities of the scientists who are really shaping 21st century medicine.

The Grete Lundbeck European Brain Research Foundation has awarded its 2nd €1-million Brain Prize to Professor Karen Steel of Cambridge University, founder of the Mouse Genetics Programme at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, and Professor Christine Petit of the College de France, head of the Genetics and Physiology of Hearing laboratory at the Institut Pasteur in Paris, for:

their unique, world-leading contributions to our understanding of the genetic regulation of the development and functioning of the ear, and for elucidating the causes of many of the hundreds of inherited forms of deafness”

When announcing the award Nils Axelsen, chair of the board of directors of the Grete Lundbeck European Brain Research Foundation, noted:

The work of these two European Scientists also illustrates the value and importance of interdisciplinary approaches in neuroscience and highlights the need for fundamental cutting-edge research to help us understand complex clinical problems and to expedite benefits for patients”

Karen Steel

A video of the award announcement – including a review of the contributions to neuroscience made by the two winners –  is available to view here.

Christine Petit

Both Professor Steel and Professor Petit have gained important insights from studies of genetically modified mice into how genetic defects lead to deafness, taking different but complementary approaches. Professor Petit started by identifying genetic mutations in hereditary deafness – particularly Usher Syndrome – and then studying the effects of those mutations on hearing in GM mice. Professor Steel – who has discussed her work in an excellent interview available here -has taken a different approach, discovering new genes involved in deafness by looking for this phenotype in newly-generated mutant mice.  While the knowledge that these two scientists have obtained is too new to have resulted in novel therapies yet – though gene therapy and stem cell approaches are now being actively researched – the work of Professor Petit in particular has already had an impact in the clinic, as screening for genetic defects aids diagnosis, informs genetic counselling, and helps doctors and patients by indicating the potential benefit of cochlear implants and hearing aids.

In a debate where proponents of animal rights frequently claim that animal research impedes clinical research, this award is further evidence that the truth could not be more different.

On a final note the Brain Prize biography of Professor Steel notes the international dimension to her work, as she:

Karen Steel is internationally recognized for her generous and altruistic approach to science. Working with a consortium of European researchers, she has established, catalogued and made freely available to other researchers several hundred mouse mutant lines, which have facilitated research in several areas of neuroscience around the world.”

Such pooling of resources by scientists based in different institutions and different countries, facilitated by organizations such as the European Mutant Mouse Archive, not only aids scientific discovery but is also an example of the 3Rs in action, as scientists would need to use far more animals if they had to create the required mutant mouse at their own institute.

It is a shame that in the same week that the Brain Prize was announced we learned that due to the threats from animal-rights extremists several transport companies have recently stopped transporting animals for research into and out of the UK, threatening the important work of Professor Steel and other scientists like her in the UK and elsewhere. We urge the UK government to take all necessary measures to ensure that these transport companies recognize their wider responsibilities – and the views of the 87% of UK citizens who support the use on animals in medical research – and resume carrying animals used in biomedical research.

Paul Browne