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National Antivisection Society

Aston opening throws spotlight on research without animals

6 February 2007

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The LDF fMRI facility at Aston University was formally opened on 4th September by Lord Mayor of Birmingham, Cllr Mike Sharpe. The day, which attracted extensive media coverage, highlighted how nueroscience must move forward without animal experiments.

LDF has committed to the £80,000 per annum running costs of the functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) scanning facility until the end of the decade. The move follows LDF support for a number of important non-animal research projects at the University including pain research and neurotoxicity. The new fMRI scanner is twice as powerful as those found in hospitals, so allows detailed study of the human brain. Whilst animal researchers are desperately increasing pressure to study neurological disorders in primates, this facility shows that it is better to use non-invasive methods to study people; results are more reliable and avoid the potentially catastrophic consequences of species differences.

Professor Paul Furlong of Aston University, said at the launch: “The World
Health Organisation estimates the numbers affected by mental and neurological disorders will surge over the next 20 years and will be the second most common cause of death and disability by 2020. The integration of functional brain imaging and pharmacokinetics, together with neuropsychological assessment methods, provide potent and novel tools for the study of mental health. Validation of these techniques will inevitably lead to a reduction of animal experiments and ultimately replacement of animals for the study of human cognitive health.”

Aston was the first site in the UK to marry both MEG (employing the UK’s only whole-head Magnetoencephalography system) and fMRI, putting the Academy of Life Sciences at the forefront of world scientific endeavour.

fMRI enables visualisation of brain cortex function in response to physical tasks, by detecting an increased flow of oxygenated blood in areas of nerve activity. Our grant covers the full running costs for the new Siemens Trio 3-tesla MRI system which is highly sensitive to changes in blood oxygen.

fMRI can be combined with MEG scanning to increase understanding of the human brain by enabling researchers to clearly track, in human volunteers, not just which areas of the brain are active, but when. Importantly, the researchers using our facility to examine movement, sight, hearing, feeling, even memory, are studying the right species.

Compare this to the Institute of Neurology experiments on primates.

Unlocking the secrets of human neurotoxicity
In another department at Aston University, we are supporting the work of Dr Michael Coleman to develop new methods for studying neurotoxicity. Neurotoxicity, or nerve toxicity, is a potential side-effect of new drugs. Furthermore by studying which substances cause neurotoxicity and why, we can gain clues about illnesses such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Motor Neurone Disease.

Sadly, most neurotoxicity research is carried out on some two million rodents and over 10,000 primates every year. Because their Central Nervous Systems (CNS) are so different from our own, our understanding of the human CNS – and related illnesses – remains poor.

The LDF is supporting research using human brain cells grown in culture. So far, Dr Coleman and his team have focused on creating a model for a group of cells known as the astrocytes – human brain cells which protect nerves in the CNS from toxins or injury.

These cells may play a crucial role in neurodegenerative disease but there has been no model on which to perform tests – but this may be about to change.

This year Dr Coleman’s team has identified three human cell lines which might act as a suitable model for the astrocytes – in preliminary tests all behave similarly to astrocytes. Next they will look at the effects of the toxins together with other cell lines, this time of nerve cells. This should start to shed light on an area of neurodegenerative disease still poorly understood.

Tackling a hospital killer
Over the past 20 years, Multiple Organ Dysfunction Syndrome, or MODS, has emerged as a leading cause of death among critically ill patients in intensive care units. Triggered by an excessive and uncontrolled response to illness or injury, MODS causes organs to dysfunction gradually over a period of weeks or even days. Of those affected, 90% of adults and 54% of children die.

Conventional MODS research has entailed forcing rats and mice to endure this excruciating disease. However, the LDF is supporting the development of a technique that makes use of artificially grown human tissue.

Dr Karl Wooldridge, of the University of Nottingham and his team, backed by an LDF grant of over £30,000, have created an artificial human Blood Brain Barrier – a defence mechanism set up by blood vessels to protect the brain. They have subjected this to known MODS-causing organisms, to study how the disease takes hold and develops. Over the coming months they hope to repeat the procedure with other tissue models – which should help in understanding how MODS works and can be treated.

Replacements for animals in education for China & India
Tens of thousands of animals are saved from use in education every year in the UK alone thanks to computer simulations created by Professor David Dewhurst with LDF funding. These replace the animals in university science practicals.

We are currently supporting the development of these programmes to enable teachers to assemble their own teaching materials on-line. This will include upgrades of existing tools and programmes in different languages. This will enable teachers all over the world to design their own programmes to suit their teaching style, using our tools.

We are also funding the promotion of the simulations. This year, Dr Dewhurst took the message to China with an LDF workshop in Beijing. Attending were over 100 Chinese university teachers.

An initial survey of the teachers suggested that only if the computer tools could be shown to be as – or more – effective than the standard animal procedures, would they be considered.
Professor Dewhurst put their concerns to rest, pointing to a string of positive and independent reviews testifying to the effectiveness of his computer models.

In December, Professor Dewhurst will be holding a workshop for higher education professionals in India.

LDF at NC3Rs
In May, the LDF presented its work at the annual meeting at the UK Government’s National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research (NC3Rs).

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