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Insight blog: Posts tagged with animal research

Stories about the people, science and research of the Medical Research Council.

Andrew Jackson: Listening to brain cells

5 Feb 2014

Andrew Jackson is a Wellcome Trust Research Career Development Fellow in the Newcastle University Institute of Neuroscience. He told Katherine Nightingale about research, part-funded by the MRC, which aims to decipher the brain patterns that control arm and hand function to help paralysed people.

Like many researchers who run their own lab, Andrew Jackson doesn’t spend as much time at the bench as he’d like. But he does get to spend the odd hour or two doing one of his favourite things — listening to brain cells.

“They become like old friends,” he says. “We’ve been able to track the same neuron over days, weeks and months and you start to get to know them quite well.”

There are important reasons for getting to know neurons. Andrew and his colleagues are hoping to use the knowledge they gain from listening in on the brain to allow paralysed people to control external devices such as prosthetic arms using just their thoughts. [...]

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Macaque research and the MRC

29 Jan 2014

Macaques are non-human primates. They are used in medical research because many of their body systems — such as their immune and nervous systems — are similar to humans, making them good research ‘models’ for a variety of human conditions.

The UK has some of the most stringent regulations in the world on the use of animals in research. Researchers wishing to use these animals in their work must show that the research is possible in no other way, comply with stringent regulations and be granted a specific licence from the Home Office.

The Medical Research Council’s Centre for Macaques breeds rhesus macaques for use in medical research in academic institutions in the UK. Using macaques from the centre means that researchers and those who fund or regulate research can be sure the animals were bred in conditions that met high welfare standards.

In these films we look at why macaques are used in medical research, including an example of a neuroscientist who uses macaques to study how brain signals control movement, with the aim of helping paralysed people control external devices such as robotic arms or wheelchairs with their thoughts. We also look at how the animals are housed in the MRC Centre for Macaques, how their behavioural needs are met and efforts to make the transition from the centre to the research lab as stress free as possible. You can find out more about the use of animals in the MRC on our website.

[Video link for access] [...]

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Introducing patients to animal research

21 Oct 2013

Laboratory mouse (Image credit: Wikipedia/Rama)

Laboratory mouse (Image credit: Wikipedia/Rama)

Researchers work with animals to make discoveries about disease and develop treatments, but how much do patients know about animal research? Here Julian Walker from Genetic Alliance UK describes a project putting patients and carers face to face with animal research, and reports on their reactions.

There is a voice that’s often missing when we talk about research using animals. While those for and against such research debate the ethics and practicalities, the people animal research aims to help — patients — are rarely heard from.

That’s something we want to change, and why we teamed up with Understanding Animal Research and six UK universities to give 25 members of families affected by genetic conditions an insight into the role of animals in building knowledge and improving treatments for their own conditions. We did this by running ‘discovery days’ at local universities. [...]

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What’s it like to be an animal technician?

2 Oct 2013

Studying the genetics of the laboratory mouse is crucial to understanding the function of genes in disease, and developing treatments for them. Isabel Baker talks to Greg Joynson, animal technician at the Mary Lyon Centre at MRC Harwell, to find out how the skills of dedicated animal technicians are key to such research.

Greg in the Mary Lyon Centre's mouse house (Image copyright: Mary Lyon Centre)

Greg in the Mary Lyon Centre’s mouse house (Image copyright: Mary Lyon Centre)

How did you become an animal technician?

I learnt about the industry through my brother, who also works here. I have an MSc in Industrial Product Design but wanted a complete career change, so arrived at the MLC with no previous experience.

What qualifications are required to become an animal technician?

The basic requirement is five GCSEs. I received training in how to handle mice and look after them. I’ve done a lot of extra training including the mandatory Home Office modules, a level 2 NVQ and a level 3 CPD course in animal technology. I have picked up a lot of knowledge on the job over the past six years. [...]

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Why I use marsupials in research

18 Sep 2013

James Turner

James Turner

We use animals in research because they’re so similar to humans. So what can be gained from using marsupials, such as opossums and wallabies, that are so far from humans on the evolutionary family tree? James Turner, a researcher at the MRC National Institute for Medical Research (MRC NIMR), tells us why finding similarities in these more distant relatives can lead to important and surprising results.

For many years, scientists have used laboratory mammals such as monkeys, mice and rabbits to understand how human diseases develop and how they can be treated. The DNA make-up, or genome sequence, of these animals is very similar to that of humans, and we’re all members of the largest class of mammals (the ‘eutherians’), so they make good experimental models.

But during the past few years, my group at the MRC NIMR, along with other researchers, have started using a more unusual type of mammal, the ‘metatherian’, or marsupial, to understand human biology. Marsupials, such as opossums and wallabies, can provide us with a level of insight that other mammals cannot. [...]

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Making a name for itself: the laboratory opossum

17 Sep 2013

A male opossum in its cardboard tube (Image copyright: NIMR)

A male opossum in its cardboard tube (Image copyright: NIMR)

Mice, rats, macaques, ferrets … there are quite a few well-known laboratory mammals. But opossums? What can these solitary marsupials offer science? Katherine Nightingale went to the MRC National Institute for Medical Research (MRC NIMR) to find out.

It’s Thursday morning at the MRC NIMR and the institute’s 100 opossums are going about their usual business. Being nocturnal, that means not a lot. In their room, most of the female opossums are burrowed into their nests, big eyes peering out from under shredded paper. Next door, the males are settling into their new double-height cages, tails dangling from one end of their cardboard tubes and long noses protruding from the other.

Native to South America, the grey short-tailed opossum (Monodelphis domestica), also known as the laboratory opossum, is a fairly unusual research animal. The NIMR is the only place in the UK to keep a colony, with other larger colonies at the University of Trieste in Italy, and the Texas Biomedical Research Institute in the United States.

Yet in recent years, scientists have begun to recognise just how useful the opossum can be to medical research. Being mammals, they share many genes and biological processes with humans, and so can be used as model animals in much the same way as mice or rats.

But opossums have other tricks up their sleeves. They are marsupials, meaning their branch of the mammal family tree split from ours around 148 million years ago. This means they differ from us in crucial ways, and by comparing these differences, researchers can learn more about the biology of people. [...]

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Ferrets, fever and flu

8 Jul 2013

A flu-infected ferret sneezing

A flu-infected ferret sneezing

It’s 80 years today since the identification of the flu virus by researchers at the MRC National Institute for Medical Research was published in The Lancet. John McCauley, Director of the World Health Organization Influenza Centre based at NIMR, looks back on the discovery, how it led to the vaccination programmes we see today, and the role played by ferrets.

The devastating flu pandemic of 1918 killed more than 50 million people worldwide, highlighting the urgent need for research into the disease. But it was not until 1933 that scientists at the MRC NIMR (then based at Hampstead) identified and managed to grow the virus in the lab.

It was during a large flu epidemic in the winter of 1932 to 1933 that scientists at the NIMR’s animal research outpost at Mill Hill noticed that ferrets, being used to develop a vaccine against the disease canine distemper, were suffering from the same symptoms as people with flu. [...]

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Can a zebrafish change its spots?

18 Apr 2013

When should we start talking to children about the use of animals in research? At the recent Edinburgh International Science Festival, MRC Regional Communications Manager Hazel Lambert added an encounter with two tanks of zebrafish into the Mini Scientists activity. The result? Lots of questions about spots and stripes.

Never underestimate your audience. Especially not when they are seven years old, dressed in a lab coat, with a pen poised over a clip board and ready to make a virus, remodel a city and extract some slimy-looking DNA from even slimier pea-juice.

The MRC’s Mini Scientists activity at the Edinburgh International Science Festival is usually booked out and feedback tells us that the kids, their parents and our dedicated volunteers all love taking part. But, after having run the activity for three years, I felt I wasn’t telling the audience the whole story. [...]

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Access all areas: BBC 5 Live and mouse research

6 Dec 2012

Handled with care: a mouse in the mouse house (Copyright: BBC 5 Live)

Handled with care: a mouse in the mouse house (Copyright: BBC 5 Live)

Victoria Derbyshire’s BBC 5 Live show was broadcast from the ‘mouse house’ at MRC Harwell this week. MRC senior press officer Cathy Beveridge was there to witness journalists working alongside animal researchers, and reflects on talking about animal research ‘from behind closed doors’.

One of the first rules I learned as a science press officer is that the word ‘ground-breaking’ should be used sparingly, if at all. Yet it was one of the first things that BBC 5 Live presenter Victoria Derbyshire said as she began her broadcast from within the Mary Lyon Centre, the mouse house at MRC Harwell, this week. By producing a two-hour live radio programme from within an animal research laboratory, we were making history.

BBC 5 Live first approached us back in the summer to find out whether we could take part in a live programme that would showcase the issue of animal research ‘from behind closed doors’. For an issue so often the source of considerable ethical debate, animal research remains strangely intangible to the wider public. BBC 5 Live had previously tackled the issue of abortion from within a clinic and terrorism from Guantanamo Bay, so were clearly no strangers to controversial topics. [...]

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When worlds collide

4 Oct 2012

The slide boxes containing slices of rat brain tissue that inspired Aga (Copyright: Nervous Encounter)

The slide boxes containing slices of rat brain tissue that inspired Aga (Copyright: Nervous Encounter)

Artists from the new interdisciplinary MA Art and Science programme at Central Saint Martins have been working with researchers at the MRC Anatomical Neuropharmacology Unit at the University of Oxford to produce an exhibition called A Nervous Encounter. Here artist Aga Tamiola tells us what she got out of the project, and shows us the artwork she produced.

Prior to visiting the MRC Anatomical Neuropharmacology Unit, I had never been to a biomedical research lab before. Excitement and curiosity come to mind when I recall my response to that very first visit in November 2011.

We visited a lab which focuses on research into the basal ganglia, a region deep in the brain involved in the initiation and control of movement.

I became fascinated with the slide boxes that were kept all over the lab. I wanted to find out what was inside them, and about the people who created them. The scientists were extremely generous with their time, showing me that the boxes contain glass slides on which thin slices of rat brain tissue are preserved. By looking at the slides under the microscope, the researchers can learn about the nerve cells (neurons) that make up the tissue. [...]

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