Like many people who do what I do, I’d quite like to become redundant. That is, I’d be content if my current job were made obsolete by advances in science.
Heart disease, stroke, many cancers, asthma, diabetes, chronic kidney disease, osteoporosis, Alzheimer’s disease, cataracts, and many more are what the World Health Organisation calls non-communicable diseases (NCDs) or non-contagious diseases. NCDs may be chronic diseases of long duration and slow progression, or they may result in more rapid death such as some types of sudden stroke.
It would appear that not a week goes by without a revolutionary scientific advance coming to the fore of societal discussion – advances that seem inevitably, as mankind’s understanding of the very building blocks of nature expands, to be accompanied by ethical questions.
In short, are scientists too concerned about what they can achieve to stop to consider whether perhaps they should? Xenotransplantation, which is the transplantation of living cells, tissues or organs from one species to another, with the cells, tissues and organs in question referred to as xenografts or xenotransplants, is no exception, and is an innovation that is raising many novel medical, legal and ethical issues
In recent days, the issue of research animals transport has once again come to the fore in the UK, with increasingly vocal and heated crossfire between animal-rights activists and scientific researchers being the hallmark of the debate.
At the core of the issue is the increasing refusal, as reported in the Daily Telegraph and elsewhere, of ferry companies and airlines to carry live mice, rats and rabbits intended for scientific research, following pressure from animal-rights campaigners.
Advances in science will present some people with new dilemmas. What if new research methods mean more primate-based studies but using fewer animals overall?
The latest trends in biopharmaceuticals will make it possible to develop fragments of antibodies – some of which can be used as new therapies – without using as many mice or rats as would have been required in the past.
The early stages of research can be done using large volumes of cell samples and with the help of computer modelling, so we essentially skip the animal-intensive phase of early research where large numbers of potential therapies would previously have been tested on rodents.
That’s how Usher Syndrome, a rare untreatable genetic disease leading to deaf blindness, first became a part of our lives. You can imagine the emotional rollercoaster, taking us from feeling a sense of shock and injustice to the struggle of dealing with an ‘unacceptable’ situation.
Insisting that animals be used only when the results of experiments have guaranteed benefits for human health is to misunderstand science, even to undermine the drive for scientific knowledge.
Science is rarely as certain or a simple as some expect. It is never possible to know for sure how new knowledge will be used.
That was 1796. More than 200 years later smallpox has been eradicated and deaths caused by infectious diseases like diphtheria, tetanus and polio have been slashed. The benefits for humans have been immense but this progress has come at the cost of literally millions of animals.
Following last month’s post, We want new medicines but at what cost?, I thought we should follow up with an expert view on life for patients suffering from rare and genetic diseases.
We caught up with Nick Meade, from the Genetic Alliance UK, while he was in Brussels. We asked Nick why expensive research is carried out to develop cures for rare diseases affecting only a very small proportion of society.
From all sides of the animals testing and research debate, everyone agrees that animals are sentient beings and this has been recognized in the Treaty of Amsterdam. Sentiency is the ability to feel, perceive or be conscious, or to have subjective experiences. In relation to animals, sentience implies the ability to experience pleasure or suffering.
During an interview session with brain researcher Peter Janssen, who uses macaque monkeys to understand depth perception, I asked him what it was like to perform experiments on non human primates who I would imagine have a higher level of consciousness than other animals.
Given my interest in issues around animal testing, these timely reminders of the burden of disease got me thinking about the contribution that research has made to human health.
It won’t be long now until the annual European Partnership for Alternative Approaches to Animal Testing (EPAA) conference which takes place on 9 November here in Brussels.
The EPAA is an independent platform which brings together the European Commission and industry groups to collaborate on implementing the 3 Rs Declaration. It has been running since 2005 and has done a lot to bring together people who don’t talk as much as they should – like companies and regulators, or scientists and EU officials.
This week sees the start of World Retina Week from 19 – 24 September. Campaigns are being launched across the globe to raise awareness of retina-related diseases causing blinding and the need for more research funding.
For our debut video interview, Animal Testing Perspectives (ATP) was very lucky to talk to Neil Parish MP and former rapporteur of the legislation protecting animals used for research in Europe.
It was clear when talking with Neil about his experience during the first reading that it was a challenging time for him. Each person faces their own personal dilemma about animal research and for Neil it was between his natural love of animals, as a farmer and dog owner, with the desire for legislation that allows medical advancement for humans.
The cameraman and I were pretty surprised when Professor Peter Janssen greeted us at Leuven university hospital reception. We were expecting someone… well we weren’t expecting Peter. On one hand he’s a relaxed straight-talking family man, on the other he has already published a long list of neurological research alongside some heavy-duty medical qualifications and awards.