Category Archives: News

Research Roundup: Malaria vaccine, mouse sperm in space, animal welfare prizes, and more!

Welcome to this week’s Research Roundup. These Friday posts aim to inform our readers about the many stories that relate to animal research each week. Do you have an animal research story we should include in next week’s Research Roundup? You can send it to us via our Facebook page or through the contact form on the website.

  • New study finds that mouse sperm stored in space still functions on Earth. Increasingly in the news we read about the upcoming reality of commercial space travel (for example, here and here). Of course, with such advances there is caution with respect to feasibility — and of course imagination with respect to possibilities (e.g., colonizing Mars). With such goals on the horizons, these researchers investigated whether sperm that had been freeze dried, and transported to the International Space Station (ISS) and then back to Earth would be able to produce viable offspring. To accomplish this they used freeze dried mouse spermatozoa — which provided a unique advantage, as the addition of water — maintains the viability of the sperm to fertilize an egg and allows for the sperm to be stored at room temperature. Other sperm when freeze dried do not survive. Microinjection  of these “space” sperm into an egg on Earth — produced healthy viable  “space offspring”. Moreover, these offspring all grew to healthy adults and were able to produce offspring of their own. This study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA.

Space mouse and pups. Source: PNAS

Laboratory frogs. Source: University of Portsmouth

  • Modified experimental vaccine protects monkeys from deadly malaria. Researchers at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), part of the National Institutes of Health, discovered that a modified version of an experimental malaria vaccine completely protected 4 of 8 monkeys from a malaria parasite, and delayed the first appearance of the parasites in 3 more monkeys. Scientists modified an existing malaria vaccine by including a particular protein, RON2L, so that it closely mimicked the protein complex used by the parasite to infect blood cells. Vaccination with the modified vaccine resulted in more neutralizing antibody, indicating a better quality response to parasitic infection. Additionally, the modified vaccine seemed to protect against other parasite strains that differed from those used to create the vaccine, suggesting that this new modified vaccine may protect against multiple parasite strains. This research will pave the way toward eventual human trials. The study was published in NPJ Vaccines.

A female Aedes mosquito. Source: NIAID.












  • Researchers at the University of Helsinki has found the lymphatic vessels extend into the brain – overturning 300 years of accepted wisdom. By genetically altering mice using the luminescent GFP gene, so that lymphatic vessels glowed under light, Aleksanteri Aspelund found that there were lymphatic vessels in the brain. The research was repeated by Karl Alitalo with the same results.  Other researchers have found evidence linking problems with the lymphatic and glymphatic systems to Alzheimer’s; one study in mice showed it could lead to the buildup of amyloid beta in the brain – a key sign of the Alzheimer’s. The study was published in the Journal of Experimental Medicine.

    Red fluorescence of the membrane protein aquaporin-4 in an individual with Alzheimer’s (left) and a healthy individual (right). Source: OHSU

  • Mice help researchers identify genes responsible for a severe congenital heart defect.  Congenital heart disease affect up to 1 percent of all live births. Hypoplastic Left Heart Syndrome (HLHS) is a rare congenital heart disease resulting in an inability to effectively pump blood  throughout the body.  Current treatment involves multiple complex surgeries during the first few years of a child’s life. For some, the surgical interventions improve heart function.  For others, it does not,  leading to heart failure and the need for heart transplants. It has been known that genetic risk factors play a role in HLHS but specific genes have been hard to identify.  Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh Schools of the Health Sciences used fetal ultrasound imaging to look for structural heart defects in genetically modified mice to identify HLHS.  Then by comparing the genomes of affected and non affected mice, and confirming using CRISPR technology they found that mutations in two specific genes that interact were required for HLHS.,   Dr. Cecilia Lo, a professor and the F. Sargent Cheever Chair in Developmental Biology at Pitt says, “Studying diseases with complex genetics is extremely challenging…By understanding the genetics and biology of HLHS, this can facilitate development of new therapies to improve the prognosis for these patients.” This study was published in the journal Nature Genetics.
  • The University of Bristol has awarded prizes in its first Animal welfare and 3Rs Symposium. The 3Rs, developed by Russel and Burch in 1954, have advanced the humane treatment of animals used in research by advocating for replacement (aiming to replace animals where possible, with alternatives), to reduce the number of animals used to the minimum required to answer and experimental question and and to refine their experiments to minimise any adverse effects experienced by the animals.These awards went to three research projects that have advanced the 3Rs in their various lines of research.

“The research project that won first prize has developed a refined method for producing aortic aneurysms in mice.  An aortic aneurysm is a bulge in a section of the aorta, which is the body’s main artery, and if the bulge ruptures it can cause sudden death. The research team has also developed a new human aortic aneurysm model in the laboratory, potentially replacing the need for animal models, using arteries taken from the discarded umbilical cord of newly born babies.

The second prize was awarded to a research team who has developed a method for giving oral drugs using solutions that mice and rats both like and which avoids the need for restraint and reduces stress in the animals. The research team found that liquid foods such as condensed milk, milkshake and fruit puree baby food are good solutions to use for giving a wide range of drugs.
The final prize was awarded to a research team who has developed photographic techniques that can be used in conscious animals.  This new technique has revolutionised preclinical eye research and has markedly reduced the number of animals needed for research studies.”

The 3Rs. Source: Bayer

Animal Testing and Human Trials: Alternatives or Complements?

The Animal Justice Project, a British-based animal rights group, is no stranger to misinformation. Previously we have debunked their factual errors regarding malaria studies in Sweden and eye injury studies. There was also the time they produced a press release which suggested 52oC (125oF) was the same as boiling water (which admittedly might be true if you tried to make a cup of tea in the lower stratosphere).

Recently on their website, a blog by Judith Snaith has been put up. The blog is a mash up of animal rights myths and misinformation, but one line was of particular interest.

More than 100,000 humans are killed yearly by prescription drugs that passed animal testing. Animal research is not the final phase, 90 per cent of drugs that pass the animal tests fail in human trials. So if we have to test on humans to be accurate, can we not skip out the middle monkey?

Let’s break this down bit by bit. The figure of 100,000 is an American one (Lazarou et al, 1998) with the figures for the UK approximated at around 10,000 (Pirmohamed et al, 2000) using a similar methodology. We have mentioned the flaws in these figures in our “Animal Rights Pseudoscience” page:

The statistic of 100,000 deaths in a year is taken from a 1998 meta-analysis by Lazarou and colleagues that examined rates of adverse drug reactions (ADRs) observed in 39 studies undertaken between 1966 and 1996 (Lazarou et al, 1998). The methods used in this meta-analysis were subsequently criticised for failing to adequately take into account differences between the 39 studies examined, a failing which may have lead to an over estimation of the number of deaths due to ADRs (Kvasz et al, 2000).

Between 2001 and 2002 Pirmohamed and colleagues analysed admissions to two hospitals in Merseyside, in order to determine if the cause of admission was an adverse drug reaction (Pirmohamed et al, 2000). Their results indicated that ADRs accounted for 6.5% of hospital admissions, and that ADRs may be responsible for up to 10,000 deaths a year in the United Kingdom. The study also found that:

  • 95% of ADRs were predictable from the known pharmacology of the drugs (i.e. from animal testing and human clinical data).

  • A large majority of ADRs were caused by older drugs.

  • About 70% of ADRs were either possibly or definitely avoidable.

So a large amount of these deaths come down to human error as the adverse drug reactions were both predictable and avoidable.

Judith mentions that these 100,000 deaths came from drugs which had passed animal tests. What she chooses not to mention is that these 100,000 deaths came from drugs which had also passed clinical trials in humans. There is no logical reason to put these deaths at the feet of animal tests – particularly as the animal tests do not check for the common causes of drug deaths – accidental overdose, negative drug-drug interactions from secondary medications, incorrectly prescribed medication etc.

Judith then goes on to mention that 90% of drugs that pass animal tests go on to fail in humans:

Animal research is not the final phase, 90 per cent of drugs that pass the animal tests fail in human trials

We’ve definitely seen and debunked this statistic before. The inference is that animal tests are not effective as many drugs fail later on. Prof Lovell-Badge explains some of the many flaws in this argument. Firstly, there is a similarly high failure rate in the human trials:

Consider that of all the drugs which pass Phase 1 clinical trials in humans, 86% will fail in later stage human trials. Yet, we do not hear activists suggesting that humans are an entirely inappropriate model for drug development (though we should note that one human is not a perfect model for another).

Furthermore, this whole argument is premised on a misunderstanding of the different role of animal and human trials:

The role of preclinical animal tests is to check if the drug offers any potential therapeutic value and, importantly, if it is safe enough to move to Phase 1 trials in humans. This does not even mean free of all side effects, but to learn whether a drug can safely be given to humans and at what approximate dosage.

Put another way, every stage of drug testing acts as a safety barrier for dangerous drugs being sold. Pre-clinical in vitro tests, pre-clinical animal tests, Phase I clinical trials, and Phase II-III clinical trials all work successively to remove potentially dangerous compounds from reaching the market. These are not their only functions, animal tests may help assess appropriate therapeutic doses, which can be later refined during clinical trials. These tests (animals and humans) may also help discover potential side effects (this does not mean the drug will be rejected – it depends on the seriousness of the condition it is intended to treat).

Judith Snaith goes on to combine her two assertions to claim that we don’t need to do the animal tests – we can just move straight to humans.

So if we have to test on humans to be accurate, can we not skip out the middle monkey?

This ignores the huge number of dangerous compounds which are removed from the drug development process because they show toxic effects in animals. To skip this step would be to allow these compounds to be trialled in humans. Furthermore, when one safety check doesn’t guarantee safety, that doesn’t mean removing the check makes anyone safer.

Animal testing is not an alternative to human trials, it complements it. Medieval castles had high walls and soldiers in them – both protect the defenceless people in the keep. Sometimes high walls and soldiers were not sufficient, and the castle was sacked, but no one would conclude that high walls were pointless and that everyone would be safer if there were just the soldiers. In reality, doing away with the castle would mean more soldiers would die, just as doing away with animal tests would likely lead to more deaths in Phase I and II clinical trials; the consequence of this would be that fewer people would volunteer for clinical trials (just as fewer soldiers would wish to defend a low-walled castle).

We use a variety of methods in biomedical science – computer simulations, tissue studies, animal models, clinical trials, epidemiology etc. Different methods can teach us different things and the results are often used in combination to build our knowledge and understanding of physiology and disease. The same is true in safety testing – all methods of screening drugs have advantages and drawbacks, but if we use them effectively, in combination, we can see that safe and effective drugs make it to market.

Would the French soldiers have taunted King Arthur if they didn’t have high walls? (Monty Python’s Holy Grail)

Speaking of Research

Research Roundup: 3D printed ovaries, social ties and longevity, a new bone regeneration therapy, and more!

Welcome to this week’s Research Roundup. These Friday posts aim to inform our readers about the many stories that relate to animal research each week. Do you have an animal research story we should include in next week’s Research Roundup? You can send it to us via our Facebook page or through the contact form on the website.

  • 3D printed ovaries produce healthy offspring in mice. In a proof of principle experiment, scientists have succeeded in removing and replacing a mouse’s ovary with a bioprosthetic replacement. These 3D printed ovaries housed immature mouse eggs, permitting the mice to ovulate and to also give birth to healthy pups. These mice were also able to successfully nurse their pups.The 3D printed ovaries were made of gelatin and is safe to use in humans. This research is highly applicable to “women who have undergone adult cancer treatments or those who survived childhood cancer and now have increased risks of infertility and hormone-based developmental issues.” This paper was published in Nature communications.

  • New study investigating how the brain encodes fear memory could lead to novel therapeutics aimed at reducing pathological fear in PTSD. Using mice, a tracing method which highlights neurons in the brain in different colors, electrophysical and optogenetic methods — these researchers that as much as 17% of neurons projecting to the hippocampus also projected to the amygdala and the mPFC. The authors explained “that the acquisition (encoding) and retrieval of contextual fear memory requires coordinated neural activity in the hippocampus, amygdala and mPFC. The hippocampus encodes context cues, the amygdala stores associations between a context and an aversive event, and the mPFC signals whether a defensive response is appropriate in the present context.” This study was published in the Journal of Neuroscience.

Mouse hippocampal neuron projections. Source: Journal of Neuroscience.

  • A simple blood test detects radiation exposure in nonhuman primates. A report in the Science Translational Medicine describes how levels of three microRNAs (miRNAs, which are small non-coding RNA molecules found in plants and animals that regulate gene expression) can be detected in blood and other bodily fluids with 100% accuracy. Two other miRNAs can predict whether the radiation exposure will be fatal. This new development could help triage victims of nuclear disasters, like the one in Fukushima, Japan, in 2011. The assay could be deployed in the field with limited expertise or equipment.
  • Large families and strong social ties help animals live longer. A large study of a naturalistic population of rhesus monkeys on an island off of Puerto Rico shows that adult monkeys with more relatives in their social network have a better life expectancy. Rhesus monkeys live in matriarchal societies, meaning that families are formed around adult females and their offspring and other relatives. By examining demographic data on over 900 monkeys across a 21 year period, researchers found that each extra female relative reduced a prime-aged female macaque’s chances of dying in one year by 2.3%. Because humans and rhesus monkeys shared a common ancestor about 25 million years ago, “we can take clues from these distant cousins about how humans might have existed in pre-industrial societies,” said Dr. Laurent Brent, Leverhulme Early Career Fellow and Lecturer at the University of Exeter and lead author on the study. “Human societies are hugely complex, and factors such as culture and access to healthcare make it hard to study the impact of a single factor like social relationships on survival.” The study was published on Tuesday in Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
Rhesus Macaques - Laurent Brent

Rhesus monkey family on Cayo Santiago (Puerto Rico). Source: Lauren Brent.

  • Breakthrough findings in bone marrow transplants, melanoma and anemia thanks to zebrafish. Zebrafish are important models for studying human disease. Dr. Leonard Zon, a researcher at Harvard University, is studying blood diseases and cancer. The embryos are transparent so that organ development can be visualized as it happens. Another advantage is that the mothers have many eggs allowing the study of the genetics of blood diseases and cancer that are passed on within families. This provides the ability to find similar genes in humans that cause those diseases. His work has led to two drugs now treating patients. One increases stem cells to help bone marrow transplant patients and the other treats patients with metastatic melanoma. A third drug is now in clinical trials with hopes to help people with a very rare type of anemia.
  • A new link in the gut-brain axis has been identified. A study in mice found that bacteria in the gut are implicated in cerebral cavernous malformations (CCMs), brain defects that occur in as many as one in 100 people. These malformations are blood-filled bubbles that protrude from veins in the brain and can leak or burst at any time. The researchers discovered that Gram-negative bacteria, which are typically found in the gut, accelerate CCM formation, particularly in animals that increase the expression of a certain gene, toll-like receptor 4 (or TLR4). A single course of antibiotics permanently altered CCM susceptibility in mice. This research identified unexpected roles for the microbiome, and is among the first to provide convincing evidence that these bacteria may initiate diseases in seemingly unrelated organs. The study was published on Wednesday in Nature.

Mice in a Cage

  • After decades of research, lab-grown blood stem cells have been produced providing  “hope to people with leukaemia and other blood disorders who need bone-marrow transplants but can’t find a compatible donor.” Using standard methods, these researchers transformed cells into induced iPS cells. They next inserted seven transcription factors  into the genome of of the iPS cells. Injecting these modified human cells into mice. Twelve weeks later these cells had transformed into “progenitor cells capable of making the range of cells found in human blood, including immune cells.” This research was published in the journal Nature.
  • A new gene therapy method for bone regeneration has been developed to serve as an alternative to bone grafts. Currently bone graft technology leaves many patients with fracture nonunions; where fractures are repaired but fail to fully heal. Furthermore, patients are often lead to long-term hospitalization and repeated surgeries. However, a promising gene therapy solution has been developed in mini-pigs, a clinically relevant large animal model. Researchers implanted a collagen scaffold into a critical-sized bone fracture of mini-pigs to recruit endogenous bone stem cells. Two weeks later bone morphogenetic protein-6 (BMP-6) DNA and microbubbles were injected into the fractures. This lead to bone regeneration and fracture healing over 6 weeks. This minimally invasive method shows great promise for human translation. This study was published in the Journal Science Translational Medicine
    Bone regen

    Gene therapy for bone regeneration. Source: M. Bez et al., Science Translational Medicine (2017)

Animal experiments in Israel rise by 51% in 2016

Israel used 507,018 animals for research and testing on animals in 2016 according to statistics released by The Ministry of Health’s Council for Animal Experimentation. This represents a 51% rise on 2015 – with the increase mainly due to a fourteen-fold increase in the number of cold-blooded mammals used (99% fish).

Testing on Animals in Israel for research in 2016. Click to Enlarge

There were moderate decreases in the number of rabbits, but the huge increase came from cold-blood animals, up from 12,784 in 2015 to 180,253 in 2016. According to the chairman of the National Council for Animal Experimentation, Prof Jacob Gopas, who spoke to Haaretz:

“If it’s possible to use fish, you don’t use mice, for example, and if it’s possible to use mice then you don’t use pigs,” Gopas says. Both the move toward using fish rather than mice in experiments and the efforts being made to raise fish with as few diseases as possible have contributed to the spike in the number of fish being used. Gopas notes that the vast majority of the fish used in research, 154,000 of the 178,000 that were used last year, were returned to their previous habitats.

No cats or dogs have been used in experiments in Israel since 2012. Primate numbers have edged up, increasing from 42 to 46 in 2016, though this is still less than 0.01% of total animal numbers. Primate experiments were under threat in 2014, resulting in seven Nobel Laureates, and seven major universities writing to President Netanyahu urging him not to further restrict animal studies.

Animals used in research in Israel in 2016. Click to Enlarge

Mice are still the most commonly used species in Israel, accounting for 51% of total animal numbers. Fish are the next most common at 35% (36% when other cold-blooded mammals are included). Rats and birds take the next two slots, with 8% and 4% respectively.

Trends in Israeli animal experiments 2004-16. Click to Enlarge.

Historical statistics show that until the spike in 2016, the number of animals has been fairly constant, fluctuating between around 275,000 and 340,000. The slight variations may account for individual projects which used a lot of animals, or from slight changes in science funding over the years. It appears that the sharp rise in 2016 is due to one or more research projects specifically working with fish – that account for most of the 170 thousand rise in animal numbers.

It should also be noted that Israel works hard to rehabilitate animals used in research. According to Israel Hayom,

The council noted that in 2016, its post-testing animal rehabilitation rate for monkeys, carnivores, farm animals and wildlife, excluding rodents and poultry, stood at 88%.

“The rates of animal rehabilitation in Israel are outstanding by any standard. Israel has been a leader in this field for years compared with the data published worldwide,” the council said, adding that it has so far funded nine projects aimed at developing methods that would minimize animal testing by finding alternatives that would not compromise research studies.

More information (in Hewbrew) can be found about the severity of animal experiments in Israel in 2016. The statistics show that 14% of projects were categorised as severe, 31% as moderate, 28% as mild, 18% as below mild, and 9% killed humanely for the purpose of collecting organs (not all countries collect this data). It is likely that projects are estimated at or above the actual severity level, and researchers would be in breach of protocol if they exceed their estimated severity.

Check out all the latest international statistics on our Animal Research Statistics page.

Speaking of Research

monkey animal experiment playing

Monkey on an Israeli primate breeding facility


Context matters: How a veterinary image became “cruel animal testing”

Recently, a photo depicting a rabbit with pretty serious hair loss was tweeted by an image sharing Twitter account, and then retweeted over 4,300 times. The photo appears quite shocking, and the post by the Twitter account reflected that.

Uber_Pix has written, in all caps: “NEVER WANTED A PIC TO SPREAD MORE IN MY LIFE”. The image is a screenshot of a post with comments from Tumblr, where the user “the_vegan_mothership” writes:

“This is a bunny at L’oreal lab. L’oreal does a lot of cruel needless animal testing. Please don’t buy products made by L’oreal. The more products they sell, the more animals are tortured.”

Twitter users saw this image and were shocked. Many upset responses resulted:

The problem with the shared image is that the origin is just not true. The image is definitely that of a rabbit suffering from hair loss, but the image comes from a Florida veterinary clinic’s website. The image was posted to the clinic website to illustrate some of the cases they have dealt with in rabbits and other less common mammalian pets that the clinic sees.

Click image to go to page

The rabbit is suffering from an ear mite infection, caused by the parasite Psoroptes cuniculi. The rabbit in the photo actually appears to be on the (long) road to recovery, as the commonly seen thick scales usually present in an infection that has spread this badly have cleared up. When an ear mite infection goes untreated, it can easily spread to the neck, abdomen, and limbs, as seen with this rabbit.

Ear mites in rabbits are commonly treated with a potent but effective drug called Ivermectin, which kills the mites as they take blood meals from the treated host. Ivermectin itself is a fascinating drug, discovered by an international team of scientists, working with isolates from Japanese soil microorganisms. While Ivermectin is a very commonly used antiparasitic medication in veterinary medicine, it is also considered a “wonder drug” in human medicine, improving the lives of millions of people in the developing world who suffer from neglected tropical diseases.

When shocking images such as this one appear, it is very easy to get caught up in the emotion of the moment and want to react and share with your social media circles. However, it is important that we try our best to check sources, look for the origins of a photo, or get a second opinion. This rabbit image has been making its rounds on the internet since 2013, with the claims that the rabbit is a “victim” of animal testing. L’Oreal even responded to the claim, stating that they no longer test their products, or ingredients on animals, and that they do not contract the testing out to other facilities, either. The exception being for parts of the world where such testing is mandated by law (e.g. China). However, they are also actively working with nations where testing is required by law, in order to find suitable alternatives.

Keep in mind as well, what the real purpose is of Twitter accounts such as @Uber_Pix. These image “scrapers” actively take images and videos off of social media, strip the credit from them, and re-upload them in order to gain as much traffic, subscribers, and click-through as possible. Why do they do this? To spam subscribers with ads, to sell stuff. Don’t give them the time of day.

This is not the first time we have seen images repurposed to tell a story fitting the animal rights agenda. In 2014, we noticed a picture of cats tied to boards was being described as animal testing when in fact it was cats being prepared for spay and neuter in order to be adopted out.

This picture was used to misrepresent animal research

In both cases, thousands of internet users have been tricked by someone who is willing to lie to create a false case against animal research. Next time you see an image criticizing “cruel animal testing”, try to find the original image source, and make sure you’ve got the full context of the picture before you click to retweet!


Research Roundup: Biosensors, breast cancer and the benefits of antiretrovirals

Welcome to this week’s (slightly late!) Research Roundup. These posts aim to inform our readers about the many stories that relate to animal research each week. Do you have an animal research story we should include in next week’s Research Roundup? You can send it to us via our Facebook page or through the contact form on the website.

  • A new experimental technology can monitor and maintain drug levels in body. The device has a biosensor to monitor drug levels in the body; this can relay information every few seconds to a control unit and pump, which releases additional drugs as necessary. Using rabbits, the researchers were able to keep a constant dosage among all animals in their study – despite physiological and metabolic differences between individual animals. Taking it a step further, the research team introduced secondary drugs that, due to acute drug-drug interactions, would disrupt the levels of the initial drug. However they found levels of the initial drug were stabilised by the sensor.  This paper was published in Nature Biomedical Engineering.

Image courtesy of the Soh Lab, Stanford.

  • A gene associated with the growth of cancer cells is also implicated with the growth of stem cells. Previous research by this group has implicated the high-mobility group (HMG) gene in the formation of polyps, abnormal growths projecting from the intestinal lining that can be precursors of cancer, in mice. Examining the intestinal cells of these mice localized the HMG active gene and its protein to stem cells buried within the deep grooves in the intestinal lining. These stem cells carrying the HMG gene multiplied far more rapidly and also increased the number of Paneth cells, a type of niche cell known to support intestinal stem cells. This research provides an exciting avenue for future research into processes that could disrupt cancer growth and prevent tumour progression. This study was published in Nature Communications.

  • Young people who contract HIV in the UK can now expect to live to a near-normal age thanks to anti-retrovirals. A study in the Lancet of almost 90,000 people showed, “Patients who started Anti-Retroviral Therapy (ART) during 2008–10 whose CD4 counts exceeded 350 cells per μL 1 year after ART initiation have estimated life expectancy approaching that of the general population”. This is 10 years longer than those who started ART in 1996. This breakthrough owes much of its success to animal research that eventually lead to such clinical trials in humans. For example, the ability of AZT, an anti-retroviral medicine more commonly known as Retrovir and Retrovis, to act against HIV (without toxic side effects) was discovered in mice and rats.

Camron Bryant: Triangulating the genes leading to binge eating

The following post is the first in a series of question and answer exchanges with biomedical researchers about recent high-impact neuroscience discoveries from their labs. Animal research will be central to many of these posts, with the goal being to explain the importance and implications of this research. We welcome suggestions for future posts, which can be emailed to

A recent article in the journal Biological Psychiatry reveals new information about the possible genetic factors that may lead to excessive overeating and its health consequences. The team was led by Dr. Camron Bryant, Assistant Professor of Pharmacology at the Boston University School of Medicine who has agreed to answer some questions about the group’s research and the significance of their exciting new findings.

Help us to understand what binge eating is and why it is important to study this behavior?

Binge eating is defined as the uncontrolled consumption of a large amount of food (typically high energy foods) over a very short time period. Key features include the lack of control over eating, i.e., the compulsion to start eating and difficulties with stopping. Also central to this behavior, in humans, is the feeling of guilt or remorse following a binge episode. Binge eating is a symptom that can be observed in patients with any one of the three main eating disorders, including Binge Eating Disorder, Bulimia Nervosa and (in some cases) Anorexia Nervosa. Binge eating is both a cause and consequence of disordered eating patterns and can be a component of a larger pattern of repeated cycles of bingeing followed by food restriction. It can lead to severe health complications, including weight gain, malnutrition (e.g., with cycles of food restriction), anxiety, and depression. A better understanding of the neurobiological basis of this key behavioral symptom could lead to treatments that normalize eating patterns and thus, improve outcomes for eating disorders, which are currently among the most lethal of all neuropsychiatric disorders.

Take us through your research. What did you do, and what did you discover?

We know that binge eating has a genetic component, based on decades of human research. However, the specific genes that influence it remain completely unknown. We utilized a large group of mice that exhibited differences in their eating behavior; using an unbiased approach, we mapped and validated a relationship between binge eating and the gene, Cyfip2 (cytoplasmic FMR1-interacting protein 2). We hope that this finding will facilitate the search for binge eating related genes in human, an effort that is currently limited in its power to detect statistically reliable results. We also found that the increased susceptibility to binge eating as a consequence of a mutation in Cyfip2 was associated with a binge-induced decrease in the expression of myelination genes in the white matter of the brain. This was an unexpected finding and suggests that promoting remyelination in the brain could represent a novel strategy to lessen binge-eating behavior.


When intermittently offered flavorful foods rich in sugars and fats, some mice binge eat in a manner very similar to humans

Why did you choose to study binge eating in mice? In what ways is the mouse genetically similar, or dissimilar, from humans who overeat?

Mice remain the premier mammalian model organism for genetic studies. Greater than 90% of human genes have a mouse homolog, and mice and humans share many of the same basic features of the dopaminergic reward circuitry in the brain that is thought to be critical for binge eating behavior. Mice, like humans, will readily binge on high sugar/fat foods when it is intermittently available in limited amounts. This is not unlike humans who typically binge after periods of either normal or restricted eating.

In humans, binge eating is not always associated with obesity and can be distinguished from more constant patterns of overeating that are frequently associated with excess body weights. This is similar to our model; the mice bingeing on palatable food do not gain any additional weight relative to normally eating mice. In fact, recent data from our lab indicate that some mice may actually lose a little bit of weight after demonstrating robust binge eating behavior., These observations suggest that the bingeing mice actually reject the standard food they receive in their home cages in anticipation of the more rewarding palatable food they are occasionally offered.

What is the social significance of your findings?

There is a growing appreciation that maladaptive eating behaviors associated with eating disorders, including binge eating, share some of the same psychological features as drug or alcohol addictions, including loss of control, compulsive behavior, an inability to refrain from the behavior in spite of known detrimental health consequences, anxiety, depression, and relapse.

Furthermore, research is beginning to show that the same genes can lead to multiple neuropsychiatric disorders. Of direct relevance to our study, the binge-eating related gene that we found had been earlier reported to affect sensitivity to cocaine-induced behaviors. Thus, the concept of food “addiction”, while not identical to “substance use disorders”, is very real and has implications for understanding the biology and how we might develop effective treatments for maladaptive feeding behaviors such as binge eating.

What are the next steps for your research?

We are currently applying our mouse model of binge eating to other genetic crosses and populations to identify additional genes and adaptations in the brain that underlie binge eating. We know that many genes likely contribute to binge-eating, and a more comprehensive set of discoveries are needed. We hope to continue to provide new insight that will inform human genetic studies and potential pharmacotherapeutic treatments for binge-eating which, at the moment, are limited to amphetamine-like compounds that themselves have the potential for addiction liability.

Thank you for your research, Dr. Bryant, and for participating in this interview. In closing, I wonder if you could share with us what inspired you to become a scientist and what fuels your passion to continue this kind of research?

My scientific interest began in high school when I started to learn more about psychiatric disorders. I thought I wanted to become a psychologist or psychiatrist so I chose to major in psychology when I began my undergraduate career at the University of Illinois. I took a class called The Brain and the Mind and was blown away by what I was learning, including a series of psychopharmacology lectures by Jeff Mogil who would eventually become my undergraduate mentor. Jeff is an incredibly inspirational and enthusiastic scientist and got me excited not only about drugs but the scientific process in general. I worked in his lab for two years and was exposed for the first time to behavioral neuroscience and behavioral pharmacology and I immediately began to appreciate the power of how observing animal behavior can actually provide insight into what happens in the human brain. At that point I decided that this is how I want to make a living.

Dr. Camron Bryant can be found on twitter @CamronBryantPhD