STEM Insights teacher placements: Discovering animals in science
During our week at the Institute we spent time with Heidi Welch, who studies cell signalling. She explained that her research has evolved over her career and she has been able to identify a protein that causes cells to migrate. Through a collaboration with cancer researchers in Scotland, it was discovered that this protein is the cause of melanoma cells metastasising, and by inhibiting it, melanomas do not spread.
We also got the chance to see neutrophil cells, which are the focus of Heidi’s research. She explained that they have a very short lifespan so working with them is difficult. As a result, they knock out certain genes in mice, and then harvest the cells from the mouse on the day that they are needed.
Heidi stressed that the ethical dilemmas of animal use were real, and that every scientist had to come to their own balanced conclusion about the issue. The advantages and disadvantages of an in vivo approach are well considered; balancing the greater clinical significance and more “realistic” cells against the ethical issues. It was clear that mice were only used when alternatives were not suitable, and they were very careful with samples so as not to use more than was necessary.
We visited the AstraZeneca building and were welcomed by Rebecca and Emilyanne, whose laboratory at Babraham undertakes in vitro and in vivo pre-clinical studies. Rebecca works with rodent tissue and showed us how the tissue is set in wax before being sliced to 3µm thick. The slice can then be stained and a series of very fancy machines allowed her to analyse the slice for several biomarkers. These include proteins and RNA that are expressed in normal and diseased tissues. This allows them to understand the toxicity on the organs and the organism as a whole, and helps with deciding dosing strategies.
We discussed their use of animals in their research, and they explained that their aim is to refine their methods in order to know exactly how and when the animal would be vital to the investigation, reduce the number of animals needed to the bare minimum and reuse animals in multiple studies where possible. They were very open about this and it gave me confidence that the company and the Institute is committed to using animals efficiently and accurately.
Finally we visited the Institute’s Biological Support Unit (BSU), this is the Babraham Institute animal house. We weren’t able to access the animal rooms due to the strict animal health protocols, but cameras have been installed to allow us to have a virtual tour in real time. We were impressed with how seriously the BSU and the Institute took the Concordat on Openness in Animal Research. Because the tour is live, it feels far more genuine than a pre-recorded video tour would be. The staff showed no signs of changing behaviour because of the cameras; it was like watching a little slice of life documentary as they went around their business.
It was obvious that the BSU staff want the unit to be open and honest with anyone who wants to know about it, which made asking questions so much easier. They too followed the same ‘Refine, Reduce, Replace’ (3Rs) principles as the AstraZeneca team. The virtual tour answered so many questions which we will now be able to take back to school and use directly in lessons. Students often have a preconceived idea about research using animals, and it will be great to be able to start informed debates with them using knowledge gained here.