It has been a very significant week here at The Institute of Cancer Research, London, for how we talk about our research using animals. We have signed the Concordat on Openness on Animal Research, which has been developed with organisations from across the biomedical research sector, and sets out how we will be even more transparent about research using animals. The Concordat aims to ensure that members of the public have access to information about animal research and its importance for understanding how organisms work and get diseases – as well as for developing better treatments for human illnesses.
In fact the ICR has talked openly about its research using animals for a long time now, but the Concordat represents an opportunity for organisations like ours to demonstrate our commitment publicly and to give our animal research an even higher profile when we communicate with the public.
I am personally very committed to even greater transparency on animal research because I think this is the right thing to do. I firmly believe that research organisations like the ICR, supported as we are through a combination of government funding, donations and charity grants, have a responsibility to the public to let them know about the research we are doing, and how we are spending this money. That includes a responsibility for researchers like me to put the case for why use of animals – mice and rats, in the case of research at the ICR – plays an essential role in understanding how diseases like cancer develop in the body and how they can be treated more effectively.
This is of course a topic that the public is very interested in and certainly has a right to be fully informed about. And being open can avoid misconceptions. For example, many people still think that animals are used for cosmetic research, whereas in fact this has been banned for over a decade. Similarly, there is continued public concern about the use of dogs to look at the effects of tobacco smoking, but this again has not been allowed for a long time. Rightly so.
At the ICR I act as what is known as the ‘establishment licence holder’, having overall responsibility for all of the cancer research that we do using animals. In addition I have chaired a committee, now sponsored by the National Cancer Research Institute, which has over the last 25 years published a series of openly available guidelines on the welfare and use of animals in cancer research. These are adopted and heavily used by cancer researchers in the UK and worldwide.
I feel personally very strongly about the proactive approaches the ICR takes to animal welfare and our determination to ensure that we carry out animal research diligently and responsibly. We only use animals where there is no valid alternative and we apply the so-called 3R’s – seeking to reduce, refine and replace animal work wherever we possibly can.
I also strongly encourage our researchers to communicate and explain to the public the critical role that animal research plays in the major advances we make in scientific understanding and medical benefits.
Surveys show that the public is very supportive of the use of animals in research that helps enhance our understanding of human diseases and supports the discovery and development of new treatments. So I’m very pleased that the ICR has signed up to the Concordat – having contributed actively to its drafting – and I firmly support its aim to ensure that members of the public have accurate information about what animal research involves and why it is so crucially important.
Using animals is vital if we are to discover how cancers develop and spread throughout the body. Under UK law animals can only be used if there is no viable alternative, so wherever we can use other techniques we are already using them. Indeed at the ICR we routinely use methods that don’t involve animals – like computer modelling, growing cancer cells in culture and analysis of scientific data obtained from cancer patients in the clinic.
But while these alternative approaches give us incredibly valuable information, they really can’t provide the whole picture. If we want to understand cancer in the context of the whole organism – including the human body – then we have to use animals.
After all, how can we come up with effective new treatments to defeat cancer if we don’t understand the basic mechanisms that underpin the disease? By discovering the genes and mechanisms that cause the growth and spread of tumours – areas in which the ICR has been very successful – we can devise new strategies to attack cancer.
In my own field of research – discovering innovative new drugs – animal research is not only essential scientifically, but also a legal requirement. All new drugs must be tested on animals before they can be given to people.
In the Cancer Research UK Cancer Therapeutics Unit that I direct here at the ICR, we use our understanding of the causes and underlying biology of cancers – much of it derived from animal research – to discover treatments that can be tailored to the genetic make-up of patients’ tumours. Since 2005, we have discovered 17 candidate drugs, acting on a whole range of different gene targets. These ‘molecularly targeted’ drugs, as they are known, are highly innovative – often being the first of their kind and therefore offering the potential of significant breakthroughs in treatment for cancer patients.
Our prototype drugs must be tested rigorously to ensure they are sufficiently effective and safe before they are tried in people. The tests we carry on our candidate drugs include the use of ‘models’ or representations of human cancer in the lab. Our potential drugs are tested first on the cancer-causing molecules (proteins) and then on cancer cells growing on plastic dishes. And then, when the prototype drugs look promising, we test them in animal models – these can involve mice that have a reduced immune system that allows human cancer cells to grow in them, or mice that have been engineered genetically to have the cancer gene changes that cause human cancers to develop.
We use these various research models to show that the prototype drugs are delivered successfully to where they are needed in the body – at the tumour cells – and also to prove that they exert the required effects on cancer-causing molecules in the cell, resulting in a therapeutic benefit. This ‘audit trail’ approach – involving the use of molecular ‘biomarker’ tests in the lab – is one that I pioneered and then extended and promoted at the ICR, and has now been taken up widely by researchers worldwide.
Last year, Cancer Research UK published its booklet, Animal Research Beats Cancer, which gives examples of how research using animals has made a real difference to people with cancer. One of the examples featured there is the ICR’s discovery and development of one of those molecularly targeted treatments I mentioned earlier – the prostate cancer drug abiraterone. Our research in mice showed that the drug we discovered called abiraterone was powerfully effective at blocking testosterone production – which prostate tumours rely on to grow. Abiraterone then went on to show beneficial activity in clinical trials and has become standard treatment for prostate cancer after chemotherapy – prolonging the lives of many thousands of men in the UK and around the world who are suffering from advanced prostate cancer, with fewer side-effects than chemotherapy.
Abiraterone and many other molecularly targeted drugs that are now benefiting cancer patients could not have been developed without the use of vital animal research .
I’m proud of the work we do at ICR to understand cancer and to help deliver innovative new treatments for people suffering from it. I’m also proud of the responsible way we do our research and how we share our experiences with other researchers and the public. You can expect to be hearing more from us in the future about our work, the important role that animal research is playing in our scientific discoveries and the benefits this research is providing for cancer patients around the world.
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