A Miracle Cure

It is time scientists are open and honest about the realistic benefits of their research or is it time the media take responsibility for inflating scientists claims?

I saw this article published this week in the Guardian newspaper ‘Spinal injury cures:balancing hope and expectation‘, which highlighted how important it is for scientists to be realistic about the clinical outcomes of their research. Frequently you read a paper or listen to a seminar about some novel research which has the potential to cure/treat/repair/reverse a wide variety of diseases. And you think, wow! What a miracle! But what are the realities? Are scientists raising the hope of patients who are in desperate need of new treatments? Or is it the media which are to blame?

Spinal cord injury is a fitting example of this. Research in spinal cord injury often makes the headlines, with exaggerated claims of patients walking again. Sure, research in this field is moving fast and progress is being made. But for patients unable to walk, how relevant is this research? How many years until the research being reported as a ‘miracle cure’ becomes available in your clinic?

I think one of the main problems is the gap between the researcher and the patient. if the researcher could see the world from a patients point of view, perhaps they would be more restrained from inflating the outputs of their research. I was very lucky when I worked in the lab, I met several patients who explained their worries, their hopes and their dreams of a cure. Of course it is important to offer hope but I think it is important to be honest and truthful about the expectations. Hopefully, the increasing role of public engagement in science will bridge the gap between researchers and patients.

However, I feel part of the responsibility lies with the media. The media often run breaking headlines on miracle cures with highly exaggerated claims (NB. I am not picking on the Daily Express, however it was the first 3 items that appeared in my google search). The media need to stop using scientific research to sell papers. They need to take responsibility on how these headlines raise hopes of patients desperately seeking a cure.

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In the minefield of information out there, it is difficult for patients to understand the progress being made. Patients who have been suffering from a disease for several years will eventually become immune to the reports of ‘miracle cures’ as their expectations are slowly lowered. Perhaps a more honest and open discussion between scientists, media and patients can help patients make a realistic determination of the hopes and expectations.

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Goodbye Chimps!

A recent discovery of a virus in the deer mice with similarities to the hepatitis C virus could mean the end of research using chimpanzees.

Hepatitis C  virus (HCV) is an infectious virus that affects the liver which can have devastating effects. Currently, there is no vacine available for Hepatitis C and research continues to find a vaccine. This is where the problem occurs. The only animal that reacts to the human HCV virus is the chimpanzee. Therefore the chimp is the only animal that can be used to research this virus.

Chimpanzee-picture

This obviously arouses many ethical problems. Research using primates is highly controversial and is avoided where possible. The NIH are currently reviewing the use of chimps in research following an external working group which made recommendations to retire their stock of 360 chimps. However, this excluded research on HCV because there was no alternative animal to carry out the research.

But this is where the mighty mouse has come up trumps again.

Researchers have discovered a virus present in the liver of the deer mouse which is genetic similarities to the hepatitis C (HCV) virus. Although this is early days in research, this could mean the mouse can now be used as an animal model to study HCV. This would mean the chimp would be made redundant.

This is an excellent example of how pioneering new science can be used to refine and reduce animal experiments.

Superstorm Sandy… a setback for science

It was with great sadness I read the news last week of the devastation that Hurricane Sandy caused by ripping through the East Coast of USA. I was horrified to read about the thousands of mice that drowned at New York University. I know this is immaterial compared to the human lives effected by Sandy but this event resulted in a major set back for science. Reports suggest almost 8000 cage of mice were killed when the basement of the university was flooded when Sandy engulfed New York. I think the biggest issue is to understand why so many animals were kept in a basement in a flood zone. This seems absurd. What make it more absurd is that this has happened before, during Hurricane Allison and Hurricane Katrina. Surely following any incident like this something should be done to prevent this reoccurring. Is it time that regulations are put in place to prevent this from happening again in the future? Shouldn’t this be a vital part of the animal care guidelines issued by the National Institue of Health. I hope some lessons are finally learnt from this event and a similar scenario doesn’t occur again in the future.

Do mice have the X factor?

I was woken up this morning to the radio announcing breaking news that scientists have discovered that male mice can sing in harmony to ‘woo’ female mice. I was curious as to what the research involved and why it had hit the media so much. Was the study worth the media coverage? Do mice have the X factor?

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The study was published in PLOS ONE, an open access journal, which some scientists dispute as being a home for poor quality science. The requirements of publishing in PLOS ONE are unlike most journals, which require the paper to be considered for its importance as well as its technical basis. I don’t like to judge other people’s work I am unfamiliar with but it certainly got alarm bells ringing in my head and I read the rest of the paper with an air of caution.

The paper has very bold claims, with statements suggesting that mice have similar neuroanatomical features to vocal learning animals, which allows them to display vocal learning behaviour. Vocal learning behaviour was previously thought to be restricted to some birds, whales dolphins, sea lions, bats and elephants.

The hypothesis… neural mechanisms for song production in mice are similar to those found in a songbird, which allows the animal to show vocal learning behaviour. 

The experiment … male mice were housed together and their vocal reaction was recorded in response to urine from female mice placed in their bedding. Over a period of 8 weeks the mice developed a harmonised song to attract the females. They also looked at what parts of the brain are activated during this process and compared them to known pathways activated in animals displaying vocal learning.

The science behind the news… it is understood that there exists a complex brain network overseeing the operation of vocal learning. This is composed of a specialised forebrain circuit linked to a feedback system in the brain using the auditory system to develop and maintain vocalisations. T 

The conclusion.. mice display features associated with vocal learning but not at the complex level found in songbirds.

So, was this study a deserving candidate for all the media publicity? It certainly is an interesting concept and if the theory holds it could open the door to showing more mammals displaying vocal learning. However, I find it quite frustrating that many studies that show significant impact on disease pass by without any media publication. We seem to be living in an era dominated by X factor, this is certainly a ‘sexy’ piece of research which has played into the hands of the media.  But do mice have the X factor? Yes, they probably do.

‘Micefrom Jackson’ October

Every month, The Jackson Laboratory produce a mouse themed calendar for you to download and save on your desktop. This month’s is entitled ‘Micefrom Jackson’.

To download your calendar, click here.

The Jackson Laboratory are a large research organisation, which use the mouse as their major research tool to study genetics. They are an excellent resource for scientists around the world as they maintain and breed colonies of mice with a huge variety of genetic modifications.

Too much cheese

When I was browsing journals this month my eyes were immediately diverted to the October issue of Nature Neuroscience. I’m normally drawn into some complex image and try to work out what it is, but this was pretty obvious… a mouse eating cheese! My only puzzlement was, why is this in Nature Neuroscience?

So a quick look into the issue revealed a multitude of papers all dedicated to the neural control of feeding. Obesity is a huge problem in the modern world and its dramatic increase over the past few years weighs on the pressure and urgency of research into obesity.

Here are some alarming obesity facts – in 2005 3/50 states in US had a obesity rate above 30%, in 2011 this had increased to 12/50 states. So what research has been done over the last 7 years to combat the fight against obesity? There has been great progress in research into how our brain regulates our feeding behaviour.

Here is a summary of the key research advances:

– The interactions between hormones from the gastrointestinal system (such as leptin, ghrelin, insulin) and the brain are starting to be unravelled and understood.
– The long-term effects of hormones and how our brain adapts to signals have been shown to lead to rearrangement of neuronal circuitry in the brain.
– Using mouse genetics, the neurotransmitters and hormones that regulate feeding behaviour have been identified.
– A possible link between obesity and addiction has been proposed with evidence suggesting that food intake activates a reward circuitry as seen in drug addiction.

These research findings are yet to be translated into a treatment for obesity. Yet the amount of research being undertaken and the progress being made is encouraging. Hopefully the next time Nature Neuroscience reviews this field we will see some exciting therapies starting to emerge to combat obesity.

OAP Mice

I discovered a new resource this week, which seems like an excellent idea to reduce the number of mice being used in scientific research. The resource is called ShARM = Shared Ageing Research Models.

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The aim of ShARM is help researchers in the UK and oversees to have greater access to information about aged mice. They do this in two ways:

1) ShARM hold a network database of live ageing colonies. This database provides information of all the researchers currently working on aged mice and the mice they currently keep. Therefore if you have a request to study a certain mouse strain at an old age the database can put you in touch with researchers who currently have these animals and therefore share information and tissue.

2) ShARM provides a tissue bank, which acquires and stores frozen tissue from aged mice. This tissue would otherwise have been discarded but the tissue bank allows it to be given to researchers who require a certain tissue to study. For example, one researcher may have some old animals they have bred to look at the effect on the liver. They use the liver tissue for experiments then donate the other tissue to the ShARM tissue bank who store it until it is required by a researcher who is interested in another tissue.

To study ageing diseases, we need aged mouse models, which have very similar ageing processes to humans. However, to breed and keep mice until they are old is expensive and also ethically not viable. The typical life span of a lab mouse is 1.5-2 years. Therefore an experiment into ageing diseases can be a lengthy, unethical and costly procedure.

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These two facilities provided by ShARM allows the sharing of information and mice tissue, which will allow research in aged related diseases to progress at a quicker pace AND importantly reduce the amount of animals that are used in research. This is of great importance in our current climate where financial costs are putting a great strain on scientists, this facility will allow research projects to be carried out with less costs. The resource is also of great importance to the ethical dilemma of using animals in research as it raises the awareness of the 3Rs (the refinement, reduction and replacement of animals in research).

Further reading:

What are the 3Rs?

Mouse Art – Nature Medicine Aug 2012

The latest edition of Nature Medicine contains a cover photo of a mouse retina. I was drawn to this image with intrigue and wanted to know more about the web formations (in green).To understand this image you need to understand what each colour in the photo represents. In this image the following colours are represented as:

Green = isolectin B4 (marks capillary interactions)

Red = actin (marks smooth muscle cells)

Blue = DAPI (a stain used to image the nucleus of cells)

This image demonstrates angiogenesis (the growth of new blood vessels – as shown in green) in a mouse model of ischemic retinopathy (loss of vision due to insufficient blood supply). These mice have been genetically adapted to lack a gene (ATM) which prevents the formation of new blood vessels and therefore prevents the formation of tumours. This study reveals the role of ATM in angiogenesis pathways and has implications for the study of cancer and choroidal neovascularization (formation of new blood vessels in the eye).

Further reading:

Original research article – Nature 2012