Why we breed transgenic animals for research

September 12th, 2012 4 Comments

mouseIn our research labs we use genetically altered animals, usually mice, to test scientific theories which we hope will one day lead to new medicines and treatments. In terms of my own work, we create mice with trisomy, which means they have an extra copy of a certain chromosome. In humans, trisomy 21, otherwise known as Down syndrome, is probably the most well-known of these conditions.

The goal is to find ways of alleviating the symptoms of these conditions. We look at how trisomy changes neurological mechanisms and how it influences embryonic development, stem cells, and the programming and function of cells. We identify and target these mechanisms and hope to treat them through therapeutic drugs. These mechanisms are often similar to those affecting humans with comparable conditions.

We can hope to heal humans thanks to the mouse model. Ten years ago there were no real prospects for treating Down syndrome. Today, Roche is testing a new drug to reduce its symptoms, including problems with learning, memory and speech. Other drugs are on their way. Ten years of research mean that we now have several promising leads for treating Down syndrome.

The animals we use also allow us to do research on rare and very rare genetic conditions, those affecting as little as 1 in every 10,000 people. These include 17q21.31 and 16p11.2, two syndromes where a part of a chromosome is “deleted,” and ring chromosome 14, which results in difficult-to-treat epilepsy. The rarity of these conditions means that it can be difficult for doctors to know even what the typical symptoms and their intensity are. The animal experiments can help us determine what is representative and how these symptoms can be treated.

The Three R’s

We take very seriously our efforts to reduce as much as possible the degree of suffering and loss of life among our animals. We have mandatory training on animal handling and well-being before being allowed to work with them and this continues with “on the ground” training as we specialise.

In our work we follow the principles of reduction, refinement, and replacement. By reduction we mean that we follow tightly optimised procedures to reduce the number of animals we need to use. For example, we know exactly how many animals we need to detect a 20% difference between a test population and a “normal” reference population.

By refine we mean making the animals’ lives as positive as possible. This means we emphasise non-invasive methods of experimentation and, when needed, we use anaesthetics and analgesics to reduce any pain felt. In terms of mutations, our animals do not undergo anything that doesn’t occur in nature. Human children with these genetic features are born naturally. If ever there are animals with very serious problems we can put them down (which I have not yet had to do).

Finally we try to replace animals where possible with other means, such as growing and experimenting with cells in Petri dishes. However, this is typically not useful for studying mental disabilities due to Down syndrome, such as long-term memorisation, interaction with space and objects, social recognition, thinking, and senses. For this cell cultures are no substitute. But we are “thrifty,” so to speak, in all we do, including our use of animals. We have to be very careful in how we keep and treat them. In Europe, and certainly in France where I work, the use of animals is very well regulated [hyperlink to French regulation].

There are some who say we don’t need animal testing anymore. But for the kind of research we do, there’s very little that can be achieved with cells in Petri dishes. We do it knowing that people will benefit. In the 1920s, research using dogs and bovines led to knowledge of insulin’s role in diabetes and to the creation of medical treatments (including for animals with diabetes). Today there are still countless diseases which we could treat better. We work knowing that in the end our research will help heal people and improve their lives.

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  1. Louise Gardener says:

    I am against animal testing in many situations, particularity in cosmetics and unnecessary studies but when there is a clear benefit AND the animals are treated well and not abused AND there really is no alternative & even then using mice-vermin to many-is better than using beagles and primates. Like you say insulin would not be possible without animal studies and diabetic women would never carry a child to term like the old days. I think what most people get angry and upset about (myself included) is the cruelty that has been exposed, images of HIV infected monkeys seeing the light of day after 30 years in dark cramped conditions, rabbits locked in boxes being blinded with products that are obviously going to irritate anyone eyes etc. the lack of transparency in land and companies that test is also a big problem and I found it refreshing to see someone taking the time to explain their own research. I wish more would follow your example and I dream of a world where only the smallest amount of testing (If any!) happens but with PETA approved inspectors and staff being able to monitor animals welfare and conditions and regulation on uneccessary research. I also think scientists should be held responsible in courts of law for cases of animal cruelty, again seen on under cover reporting. I hope that the research into downs above does lead to advances in science that have a directly positive effect in improving the lives of those born with Downs Syndrome and the families who care for them. Peace, Love & Respect. Thanks for listening x

  2. Editorial team says:

    Hi Louise, thanks for sharing your point of view on this platform, it is really appreciated. Have a good weekend.

  3. Ross says:

    It’s good to see people being open to the idea of animal testing. However, I think it should be made clear that an enormous amount of red tape surrounds animal research (at least in the UK and most of the developed world). Work is only permitted if there is no other alternative (in vitro, in silico…) and we have to work to ensure we use the minimal amount of animals possible to the best of our ability. If scientists are shown to be neglecting their animals, causing unnecessary distress and harm or even performing a technique they are not legally allowed to perform, their ability to work with animals will be revoked and they may have to stand in court.

    Additionally, in order to make sure animal welfare is the very top concern, we already have government inspectors who visit us regularly to make sure we are adhering to the law. PETA-approved inspectors are completely inappropriate, in my opinion: they are not bound by law and have been shown to break the law in the past and I fear that their decisions might be governed more by heart than by head. I think we have a fantastic system in place already to make sure we are treating animals in the best possible way. Scientists are only people: many of us have pets/have had pets and none of us want to see any sort of animal suffering. It’s not “all about the data” – we have feelings, too!

  4. Hi Ross, thanks for commenting, it is greatly appreciated.

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