“Piglets into Personalized Avatars” is #SciComm done right!

Yesterday, Ed Yong, a science writer for The Atlantic, published a fantastic article describing how miniature pigs are now being relied upon as personalized models of devastating diseases. His article described how Dr. Dhanu Shanmuganayagam is using the gene-editing technique CRISPR to create pigs that have the specific mutations of particular individuals with the disease neurofibromatosis type 1 (NF-1).

NF-1, formerly known as von Recklinghausen NF or Peripheral NF, affects 1 in 3000 people worldwide. It is an incurable inherited disease that that manifests many possible symptoms; e.g., learning disabilities, bone and heart problems, and benign tumors. Because each patient can express symptoms of NF-1 differently, and thus require different treatments, it is crucial to have an animal model tailored to each patient to individualize his or her treatment.

Credit: Jeff Miller, UW-Madison

Yong’s article is a beautiful example of science communication done right. It includes a personal story: Charles Konsitzke, an administrator at the University of Wisconsin’s Biotechnology Center, bumped into Shanmuganayagam at an event in Madison, WI, to promote research to local politicians, and told him of his 7-year-old son’s own infliction with NF-1. It includes relevant background information on the disease that is neither overly complex nor difficult to understand. It teaches readers factoids along the way that keep them wanting to read (e.g., NF-1 is more common than other better-known genetic disorders like cystic fibrosis). Importantly, the piece includes crucial information on why animal models, pigs in particular, are crucial for this type of life-saving research – and states this concept repeatedly. The piece also shows images of the animals being studied and some of the experimental settings.

Credit: Jeff Miller, UW-Madison

Yong wrote the article after a stint at UW Madison as a visiting writer. UW Madison itself is an institution that does #SciComm right, with an extensive website dedicated to Animals in Research and Teaching that includes a dynamic news feed and photos for free use.

Speaking of Research is proud to showcase Ed Yong’s work in promoting sound, ethical, regulated animal research. Thanks for inspiring future science communicators, Ed!

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