Tag Archives: BBC

University of Leicester shows how it’s done as new animal research facility opens

In a ceremony at the University of Leicester today City Mayor Sir Peter Soulsby opened the new Central Research Facility, marking the beginning of a new era for animal research there.  Speaking at the ceremony, the Mayor welcomed the University’s investment, saying:

The University of Leicester has a well-deserved, worldwide reputation for its pioneering research, which has been key to many life-saving medical advances. The opening of this new facility shows the University’s continued commitment to breaking new ground. This is something that the whole city can take pride in.”

Leicester City Mayor Sir Peter Soulsby at the opening of the University of Leicester’s new Central Research Facility.

Professor Mike Barer, Director of Research in the School of Medicine, Biological Sciences and Psychology and a noted expert on tuberculosis, highlighted the past achievements of Leicester scientists, before commenting on the benefits that the new laboratory would bring to both scientific research and animal welfare at the university.

The University of Leicester is recognised nationally as a leading centre standing up for animal research for medical benefit conducted within a clear moral and ethical framework balancing consideration of humans and animals.

The facility provides an exceptional environment for both animals and investigators. Of particular note are the new facilities for imaging applied to animals such that many less subjects will be required to achieve valid results.”

Some examples of this work were included in a series of case studies of recent and current animal research published by the University of Leicester.

A few hours before the opening ceremony  Tom Feilden from the BBC’s flagship “Today” news program (item begins at 08.49) noted the University’s unusual openness about the new animal research facility, as Professor Mike Barer and Dr Claire Gibson showed him around and discussed the research bring undertaken there.

Should we be surprised at this openness? Well, perhaps not.

Back in 2010 in a post entitled “Leicester – The New British Battleground?” we reported on how an animal rights campaign called “Stop the Leicester Animal Lab” had launched a campaign against the new laboratory, complete with false allegations about secret unlicensed research involving dogs (seriously, we’re not making this up…they did). The University responded in an unusually forthright way by inviting a local journalist to tour their existing medical sciences building (which the new lab will replace), talk to scientists working there and see for themselves the conditions in which the animals are kept.  The outcome of this visit was an article in “This is Leicestershire” that was overwhelmingly positive towards the scientists who work there, and lambasted the animal rights campaign for being “economical with the truth” (which was putting it mildly).  “Stop the Leicester Animal Lab” appear to have run out of steam soon afterwards, and construction of the new laboratory continued. In the end Leicester did not become a battlefield, and the credit for this must go to the University for taking a strong stance in support of the work its scientists do.

The University of Leicester taught us an important lesson in 2010, that “No comment” is never the right response to animal rights campaigns. By engaging positively with the press and the public the University dispelled the animal rights lies and misinformation, and helped people to understand the value of animal research and its crucial role in advancing medicine. It’s great to see the University of Leicester continue to show how it’s done!

With public support for animal research in the UK remaining high one might be tempted to ask if universities, research institutes, charities and individual researchers still need to do more to engage with the public around the issue of animal research.

The answer couldn’t be clearer. Yes!

While some organizations have greatly improved their communication on animal research, many others can do a lot more. Despite the substantial decline in animal rights extremist incidents in the UK over the past decade, other threats to biomedical research remain. A worrying trend is the increasing number of transport companies that have declared the will no longer carry animals that are destined to be used in research, as noted in a guest post on this blog by Eric Raemdonck and a strong editorial published in Nature only last week.  While such limits on laboratory animal transport may now appear to be more a nuisance than a real problem, and affect only a small proportion of studies directly, the reality is that if this trend continues it may greatly hinder an increasingly international biomedical research community. As the Nature Editorial states:

If individual scientists wait until they are personally affected — until the day when that mouse carefully bred in Shanghai or Singapore or Stockholm cannot be had for love nor money in San Francisco — it will be long past too late to mount the vigorous, public campaign in defense of animal research that is so sorely called for at this moment.

As researchers join this battle — and join it, they must — they should, as a first step, work through their institutions, academic societies and umbrella groups to make an urgent, articulate, unified case to UPS and FedEx that the shipping of animals, mammalian and other­wise, is essential for both biomedical research and scientific education.”.

We strongly echo that call for coordinated action by the international scientific community, and add that institutions, academic societies and individual scientists also need to follow the great example set by the University of Leicester and celebrate the endeavours and accomplishments of animal research and the scientists who undertake it. Only by ensuring that the public fully appreciates the importance of animal research to medical progress in the 21st century will we be able to safeguard that progress.

Paul Browne

Amblyopia, kittens and BUAV’s deception

Normal vision relies on healthy eyes, retinas, and their proper wiring of the brain structures that process visual information.  Light which enters the eye is sensed by photoreceptors on the retina.  The information is then transmitted via the optic nerve to the lateral geniculate nucleus and from there to the first stage of cortical visual processing, the primary visual cortex.

Amblyopia refers to the loss or reduction of vision from one eye because it is improperly wired to the brain structures that process visual information.  Even an eye with normal optics and retina may be weakly or incorrectly connected to the brain, resulting in substantial vision loss from that eye.

What causes amblyopia?  Frontal- eyed animals combine the images of the two eyes into a single image.  The process also yields the percept of depth — estimates of the distance of objects from the observer.  When then the two eyes receive very different scenes that cannot be fused into a single one, the brain opts to ignore information from one of the eyes.  This can happen when the eyes are misaligned and pointing in different directions (strabismus), or when the one eye is much more nearsighted, farsighted, or astigmatic compared to the other.

About 3% of children are affected by the condition and, unless it is treated during a period of high plasticity in the brain that may allow external factors to help the brain rewire, called the critical period, the loss of vision might be permanent as the adult visual system becomes hardwired. In other words, if we do not treat them amblyopic patients would be effectively blind from the input of the affected eye.

It is important to correct amblyopia for the simple reason that we are born with only two eyes.  Starting your life with only one good eye means your likelihood of going blind during your lifetime is much higher. Thanks to advances in medical research, we are living 25 years more than our grandparents; thus it makes sense to ensure our children start their lives with a pair of healthy eyes.

Animal rights activists argue that because blindness is not a life-threatening disease using animals in this type of research is not justified.  I concede blindness is not life threatening, but I ask you to participate in the following exercise — blindfold yourself for just one week and try to go about your daily activities — helping the kids to school, getting to and from work, shopping at the supermarket, doing the laundry, cooking, washing the dishes, assisting your children with homework, and so on.  Please return to the comments section of this blog and share with us what you have learned about blindness and the suffering it can cause. This is the suffering the research is intended to prevent and alleviate.

Some of these points were well expressed by a Cardiff University statement in response to the Mirror’s  negative coverage of these experiments which included an on-line poll asking readers to participate. The Mirror article elicited the response of scientific blogger PZ Myers who tried once more to explain the true reasons for such experiments and asked scientists to make their voices heard in the poll.  The Mirror, apparently disliking the trends in the results, responded with a re-poll. Aside from the obvious scientific invalidity of such internet polls, it is evident from the comments in the article that those who voted against such experiments fail to understand the impact of severe vision loss on quality of life and the methods of the research.  While they appear ready to rule out the use of animals in sight-saving research, the same population appears to think differently when it comes to ruling animals out of their dinner plates.

So let me explain again how animals are involved in these studies. To study the early wiring of the brain scientists have used frontal-eyed mammals that have an early visual cortex organized similarly to that of humans.  Kittens have historically been used in many of these developmental experiments because they have frontal eyes and binocular vision, and their visual cortex expresses ocular dominance columns as other higher mammals and humans do.  Such “columns” represent the amount of cortical territory that each eye takes during development which changes if one eye is weakened. Animal work has shown how different rearing conditions influence the balance the input of the eyes into the cortex, the timescales involved, and the effects of multiple reverse occlusion procedures on visual acuity.  Mice also have a small area of binocular vision where the cortex receives inputs from the two eyes and exhibit similar plastic changes. The study of the molecular pathways and events that lead to the opening and closing of the critical period are now being studied almost entirely in mice.

Finally, studying the normal wiring of the brain during development has potential benefits for many other areas of medicine.  Amblyopia serves as a general model of a developmental disorder of brain wiring. Understanding the factors that control the opening and closing of the critical is key not only for vision but other diseases. Specifically, if we understood the molecular events that open and close the critical period we could potentially learn how to open such a window of plasticity in the adult.  This would allow us not only to treat amblyopia in the adult, but also to enhance neural repair in many conditions that involve damage to neural tissue, such as in stroke.

We do not currently have non-invasive methods that would allow us to study normal and abnormal brain wiring during development in humans.  Animal models allow us to understand the molecular and cellular events that take place during development.  The experiments involve artificial closure of one eye and recording form brain structures while animals are fully anesthetized. The anesthetic plane is monitored continuously by measuring the heart rate, electrocardiogram, end-tidal CO2, and core temperature.  Such monitoring parallels and even exceeds what one may see in human surgeries. The animals are euthanized at the end of the procedure with an overdose of anesthetics — the same way your pet may be euthanized by your veterinarian.

It is outrageous, ignorant or simply deceptive for Nick Palmer of the BUAV to claim on the BBC during a debate with Tom Holder on the justification for this experiments that “you wake up the animal” during the electrophysiological recording procedures. This is flat wrong. Animals are anesthetized for both the surgical procedures, and continuously during the recordings.  They never regain consciousness as they are euthanized at the end of the experiment.

We all benefit from the medical advances of the past.  Animal research has undeniably contributed to such advances. Opting out of such research without a viable alternative would cause much human and animal suffering.  Inaction needs a moral justification, one that our opponents have yet to spell out on moral and scientific grounds.

Addendum: It’s worth remembering that the Mirror – a British tabloid that is characterised by all the usual vices associated with such publications – has a history of making false allegations against scientists. Back in the 1980’s its Sunday edition was obliged to print a Press Council ruling that an earlier report on amblyopia research performed by the neuroscientist Professor Colin Blakemore was “exaggerated, unbalanced and unfair”. It seems that the Mirror is still living up to its “gutter press” reputation.

Big Questions, but few answers from opponents of animal research

A recent edition of the BBC1 Program called “The Big Questions” offered a brief debate on animal research. Among those discussing the issues was SR’s founder, Tom Holder. Within this post we will discuss some of the many issues which were touched upon, but barely explored in this brief debate.

Some of the questions centered on moral issues, other on scientific ones. At the beginning of the discussion Prof. John Stein of Oxford University explained his use of monkeys in studying Parkinson’s disease, after which he was asked if he would experiment on great apes.  He replied he would not, unless there was some extreme circumstance that required them.

Where would you draw the line?” — countered the host.

Let us pause for a second here. This is an important question that is worth asking. But first let us consider – and reject all the theories that do not involve drawing any lines at all.  What theories are these?

One is the Cartesian view, which posits animals do not truly suffer, do not really have emotions, and do not really have interests of their own. Consequently, the Cartesian view is that humans can use animals as we please. We do not know any living scientist or philosopher that would seriously defend this view.

The other theory that does not draw any lines is the animal rights view, in which all living beings have the same basic rights to freedom and life as a normal human. Although most members of the public reject this view as making no sense at all, nobody in the panel cared to explain, nor did the host bother to ask, what justifies this stance.

What Prof. Stein articulated as a justification was a version of something called the sliding scale model.  Here, the moral weight of a living being’s interests depends on the individual’s degree of cognitive, affective and social complexity. Where we draw the line for different types of experiments in animals is a valid and important question, but we can only ask it that if we all agree with the notion of graded moral status.

Opponents of research reject such a theory.  Alistair Currie, from PeTA, stated:

Suffering is suffering.  We have a moral obligation not to impose it on anybody.”

We generally agree that unnecessary suffering should not be imposed on other living beings, and as Prof. Stein stressed, scientists work hard to ensure that suffering is eliminated or reduced to an absolute minimum in laboratory animals. We do not think there are absolute moral principles.  Even “thou shall not kill” permits exceptions, such as in the case of self defense. Another example is the infliction of harm to other human beings that was, for most of us, morally justified and necessary when it came to liberating the concentration camps in Nazi Germany.

If we truly had an absolute moral obligation to never impose suffering on anybody, as PeTA representative Currie suggests, liberating concentrations camps would be morally wrong. We might accept such a declaration from someone who is a declared pacifist, but we have plenty of evidence to suggest that PeTA is a far from being such an organization.  PeTA remains morally confused.

Invariably, when opponents of animal research fail to make an ethical case for their position, they attack the science. In this case, it was Kailah Eglington, representing the Dr Hadwen Trust, who was in charge of this strategy.

“Scientifically looking at the facts, the animal model is flawed.” — she declared without even blinking.

Wait a second. Where was she when Prof. Stein explained how he found an area of the brain that when inactivated could relieve the symptoms of Parkinson’s? How does she explain his success?  Or does she deny the benefits of the work?

Ms. Eglington also suggested that Prof. Stein could have used non-invasive methods in humans, such as MEG, suggesting the same information could be obtained by this techniques. As Prof. Stein pointed out in his response this is flatly wrong. Prof. Stein not only uses a range of such techniques, including MEG and fMRI alongside his studies in macaques, but with his colleagues at Oxford University pioneered the use of MEG as a research method in patients undergoing deep brain stimulation. However, none of the non-invasive methods can yield the same data that one obtains using micro-electrode recordings from the brain, as we discussed in an earlier post on the limitations of fMRI.

A quick visit to the Dr. Hawden Trust web-site reveals that they state with absolute certainty that:

Alternatives to animal experimentation are available in virtually every field of medical research.”

Wow…   Let’s be clear: this is complete utter nonsense that deserves to be filed here. Should we be surprised at the lack of sensible science by someone who, on the side, founded an organization which claims that “the power of positive thinking” can treat physically debilitating conditions.

Kailah Eglington furthered her pseudo-scientific nonsense by claiming that: “9 out of 10 drugs that are tested on animals successfully fail in humans“. The problem here is the mistaken blame on the animal model – these same drugs have already passed pre-clinical non-animal tests such as cell cultures and computer models; moreover, about 90% of drugs fail at every stage of development – meaning that 90% of those that pass early clinical trials in humans still fail to make it to market – this is not something we can blame the animal model for. We have previously written a full and clear rebuttal of the 90% claim – however it continues to be used by the animal rights community.

Such examples go to show a common problem for advocates of science – that it takes a lot longer to debunk junk science, than it does to make it up. While Tom Holder and Prof. Stein argued science’s case very well the debate highlighted some of the limitations of this format, though perhaps this is all we can expect from a format that tries to address Big Questions in 15 min of television programming.  It seems the goal here is more to get opposing sides to have a screaming contest rather than to provide an opportunity for thoughtful exploration of the questions at hand.

Speaking of Research

Tom Holder to Debate on the BBC’s Big Questions

Tom Holder, founder of Speaking of Research, will debate the question “Is Animal Testing Ever Justified?” on the BBC1’s The Big Questions. The show is live on Sunday at 10am GMT (BBC1 – UK Channel).

The panellists speaking on the show, hosted by Nicky Campbell, include –
Supporting animal research:
– Tom Holder, founder of SR
– Prof. John Stein, an Oxford University Neuroscientist who was a scientific advisor to the student movement Pro-Test

Those against include:
– Peter Tatchell, human rights campagner
– Kailah Eglington, Chief Executive of the Dr. Hadwen Trust
– Alistir Currie, from PETA

Furthermore, there will be a selection of religious figures (who are mainly there is discuss the other question of the direction of the Church of England and Polytheism).

This debate coincides with the recent problems that Britain is having in transporting animals in and out of the country.

Speaking of Research.

The First Decade of the Human Genome: What’s on the Horizon?

To mark the 10th anniversary of the sequencing of the human genome the BBC aired a documentary yesterday evening entitled “Miracle cure: a decade of the human genome” that can be viewed on the BBC iPlayer.  It was an enjoyable look at what has been accomplished since the famous announcement at the White House in June 2000, and while I think the program could have done with exploring some of the science in more depth, it gave a good overview and didn’t shrink from the sheer complexity of many of the questions that face scientists who are now attempting to understand the genome.

Sophie Longton holds a vial containing a gene therapy treatment that may one day cure her of cystic fibrosis. Image Courtesy of the BBC.

The program followed three individuals as they sought to understand what impact the knowledge gained from studying the genome could have on illnesses that have affected them, breast cancer, cystic fibrosis, and alcoholism, and what basic, applied, and clinical research is currently underway. The case of a woman whose breast cancer is linked to a defective BRCA1 gene turned to discussion of the potential for the development of personalized medicine – treatments that are tailored to the genetic makeup of an individual patient’s cancer cells. Animal research plays a very important role in the development of targeted therapies that can be used in personalized medicine, and an early example of this is the drug Herceptin, which is used to treat cancers that express the HER2 gene.

The cystic fibrosis thread focussed on the development of gene therapy and clinical trials now underway under the direction of Professor Eric Alton of the UK Cystic Fibrosis Gene Therapy Consortium. These gene therapy trials use lipid spheres to transport working copies of the CFTR gene – defective in cystic fibrosis – to the lungs of patients, and the particular lipid formulation used in these trials, known as  GL67A was selected after careful evaluation against other candidates, first in CF mice and then in sheep (1).  Mice models of cystic fibrosis have helped researchers to understand more about the disease and to assess therapies, but until very recently research has been hampered by the lack of a large animal model of cystic fibrosis that models the lung pathology of cystic fibrosis.  This situation finally changed in 2008 when scientists at the Universities of Iowa and Missouri produced genetically modified pigs that lack the CFTR gene and develop all the pathologies that are characteristic of cystic fibrosis in humans. This new animal model for cystic fibrosis will be very useful for evaluating the safety and efficiency of new gene therapy techniques as the science advances.

Finally the thread on the influence on genetics on alcoholism was a reminder of just how complex the interaction between an array of genetic variations and the environment can be, and that while it may be possible to identify factors that predispose an individual towards a particular condition it is often difficult, if not impossible, to identify a single cause that tips the balance. Considering the enormous damage caused to society by addiction, and the high failure rate of addiction treatment programs, there is no doubt that addiction research is a neglected area within biomedical science.  This is sad because research into the physiological underpinnings of addiction can aid the development of more effective treatment programs. Hopefully the identification of genes that predispose certain individuals to addiction will help society to realise that science can make an important contribution to solving this medical and social problem.

Paul Browne

1)       Griesenbach U, Alton EW; UK Cystic Fibrosis Gene Therapy Consortium. “Gene transfer to the lung: lessons learned from more than 2 decades of CF gene therapy.” Adv Drug Deliv. Rev. Volume 61(2), Pages 128-39 (2009) DOI: 10.1016/j.addr.2008.09.010.

Finding animal research in medical news

One of the things that often strikes me when reading about medical advances or clinical trials is how variable the reporting of basic and applied research, including animal research, that underpins the clinical research is.  In some cases it is discussed in some depth, but far too often it is either skimmed over or not mentioned at all.  This is a shame since it makes it more difficult for readers to make the connection between what is happening in the clinic and animal research that may have begun years earlier. A few stories in the news this week illustrate this variability very nicely.

I’ll start with an excellent report by Miriam Falco on CNN entitled “Stem cell treatment goes from lab to operating room” which describes a clinical trial of fetal stem cells in the treatment of Amylotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease), a progressive neurodegenerative disease affecting the motor neurons that leads to severe muscle weakness and eventually death as the muscles that control breathing fail.  As the CNN report points out research on rats was vital to the identification of the correct type of cells for this transplant, and Dr. Eva Feldman demonstrated that injecting fetal stem cells into rats with ALS preserved the large motor neurons and muscle strength.

Lead researcher Dr. Eva Feldman, a neurologist at the University of Michigan, designed the trial just four years ago. After a lot of animal testing, her team determined that using fetal nerve stems rather than human embryonic or adult stem cells (such as bone marrow stem cells) was most effective, she says.

Stem cells have the ability to turn into different cells in the body. However, human embryonic stem cells, which come from 4- or 5-day-old embryos, also been found to sometimes turn into cancer cells. Fetal stem cells, such as those used in this trial, are a few weeks older and have already taken on a specific identity — in this case nerve cells.

Feldman says the fetal stem cells used in this trial did not become any of the unwanted cell types. “That’s very, very important,” she says.

Basic animal research showed the potential of this therapy, but applied research also played an important part in making this clinical trial possible. Through studies on pigs Dr. Nicholas Boulis developed an apparatus that allows the stem cells to be injected at precise locations in the spine, and then practice the technique before attempting to use it on a human patient.

Animal testing also proved very useful when it came to figuring out how to actually inject the stem cells. Emory University’s neurosurgeon Dr. Nicholas Boulis invented the device that holds the needle that injects the stem cells. The goal is to inject the cells without injuring the spine and causing even more paralysis. He practiced on 100 pigs before attempting the procedure on a human.

Our second report is from the LA Times, and in an article entitled “A personal fight against a lethal childhood illness reports on the work being done at the Centre for Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy at UCLA. It’s a nice report which shows how passionate scientists like Stan Nelson and Carrie Miceli are about finding effective treatments and cures for serious diseases.  While the report does refer to  experimental therapies such as exon-skipping and gene therapy it unfortunately does not discuss them or the research that led to their development in any depth.

Exon skipping is a particularly innovative approach to treating some cases of Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy (DMD) where the disease is due to a mutation in the dystrophin  gene that stops translation from messenger RNA prematurely and prevents the production of the protein  dystrophin. In exon-skippping a molecule known as an antisense oligonucleotide or morpholino acts to remove the portion of mRNA that contains the mutation and allows the translational machinery of the cell to read through and produce a working dystrophin protein.  As I discussed in an article last year research in mice and dogs has been crucial to the development and refinement of exon-skipping and early versions of this therapy have already had promising results in clinical trials undertaken at  Great Ormond Street Hospital in London and Royal Victoria Infirmary in Newcastle.  Gene therapy, where the faulty dystrophin gene is replaced by a working version, is also being developed, though it has not yet entered human clinical trials. A recent review (1) available to read for free at PubMed Central discusses the progress that has been made in recent years, the challenges that remain before DMD can be cured, and the vital role played by animal models  in overcoming these challenges. The review also covers stem cell therapy for DMD, another exciting approach to treating the disease that we have discussed previously.

The final news item is a BBC report on a successful clinical trial of stem cells to treat Multiple Sclerosis, this time using stem cells isolated from a patient’s own bone marrow. Multiple Sclerosis (MS) is an autoimmune disorder where the patient’s immune system turns on the myelin sheath that insulates the axons of nerve cells, leading to a range of often serious neurological problems.  At present few effective treatments have been approved for MS, and several are currently being evaluated in clinical trials.  While the improvements seen in the clinical trial were modest they do hold promise for longer and lager trials that are now being planned, and I suspect that as with other therapies the key might be to start treatment early to prevent damage as well as allowing damage to be repaired.

The symptoms of Multiple Sclerosis. Image courtesy of Mikael Häggström

The trial at Frenchay Hospital in Bristol built on years of careful animal research, including research conducted by Professor Neil Scolding who lead this clinical trial.  Interestingly the research, conducted in mice with experimental allergic encephalomyelitis that reproduces many of the features seen in autoimmune diseases that attack the myelin sheath, showed that rather than replacing the damaged cells that produce the myelin sheath or nerve cells the injected stem cells protected the myelin sheath and nerve cells by turning down the pathogenic immune response responsible for damaging the myelin sheath (2,3). This was important since it meant that it was not necessary to inject the stem cells directly into the site of the MS lesion, rather the cells could be as (if not more) effective if injected into the bloodstream so that migrate to tissues such as the lymph nodes where they can interact with cells of the immune system.  This discovery paved the way for the clinical trial reported by the BBC.

There’s a lot of stories in the news that are relevant to animal research, the trouble is that it’s not always easy to see the connection. At Speaking of Research we believe that the onus is on scientists to make sure that when they talk to reporters they give the full picture of what their research involves, and what earlier studies it depended on. Only then can the public really begin to appreciate just how important animal research is to continued medical progress.

Paul Browne

1)      Wang Z. et al. “Gene Therapy in Large Animal Models of Muscular Dystrophy” ILAR J. Volume 50(2), Pages 187-198 (2009). PMCID: PMC2765825

2)      Matysiak M. et al “Stem cells ameliorate EAE via an indoleamine 2,3-dioxygenase (IDO) mechanism” J Neuroimmunol. Volume 193(1-2), Pages 12-23 (2008) DOI:10.1016/j.jneuroim.2007.07.025

3)      Gordon D . et al “Human mesenchymal stem cells abrogate experimental allergic encephalomyelitis after intraperitoneal injection, and with sparse CNS infiltration.” Neurosci Lett. Volume 448(1), Pages 71-73 (2008) DOI:10.1016/j.neulet.2008.10.040

Laying the foundations of medical research

For the past couple of weeks a debate has been raging on the Opposing Views website between Speaking of Research’s Dario Ringach and the anti-vivisectionist Ray Greek. It has been a debate shaped by Dr. Greek’s attempts to persuade readers to agree with his very narrow concept of what prediction means in biology and his frankly impoverished view on the role of basic research in advancing medical science, and to oblige those debating them to accept a playing field rigged to set them at a disadvantage.  Judging by Dario’s most recent opinion piece and an article written a couple of days ago on the role of basic research Dr. Greek failed in this attempt.

British biochemist Sir Tim Hunt, who won the Nobel Prize for medicine in 2001.

Among all the discussion was one comment that directed readers to an excellent example of the value of basic research and the how study of animal models made many key discoveries possible. Earlier this week the BBC aired a program in their Beautiful Minds series featuring Sir Tim Hunt, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2001 for his research on how the cell cycle – through which cells grow and divide – is controlled.  Sir Tim’s work focused on the role of a family of proteins known as cyclins and as the Beautiful Minds program explains the initial breakthrough came from studies of the fluctuations in the pattern of protein expression during the cell cycle in sea urchin eggs.  This discovery was followed swiftly by the demonstration that cyclins were also present in yeast, clams and frogs, allowing Sir Tim and his colleagues to predict that they would have a role in regulating the cell cycle in many species,  including humans, a prediction that was soon confirmed to be true (1).

This program is a reminder that while discussion of animal research tends to focus on animals such as mice, rats and monkeys a lot is being learned about the fundamentals of our physiology through research on more humble model organisms, a diverse collection that includes not just sea urchins and clams but also nematode worms and flies .  These animals, along with other model organisms such as yeast and bacteria, enable us to study how living things work at a very fundamental level, laying the theoretical foundations for future applied and translational research that yields innovative treatments for disease and injury. At the same time, researchers studying other aspects of physiology often require higher mammals. The study of complex brain functions, including vision, hearing, memory, attention and motor planning, as well as how these functions fail in diseases of the central nervous system, is a prime example of this.

If you haven’t watched the Beautiful Minds series yet I strongly urge you to do so, the programs provide a fascinating (if not always flattering) insight into how science works.  And don’t delay: they are only available to view on the BBC iPlayer for another 7 days!

Paul Browne

1)      Pines J.  and Hunter T. “Isolation of a human cyclin cDNA: evidence for cyclin mRNA and protein regulation in the cell cycle and for interaction with p34cdc2.” Cell Volume 58(5), Pages 833-846 (1989)  PubMed: 2570636