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Five ways we’ve been talking about animal research


Our Science Information and Policy Manager, Dr Eva Sharpe, looks at how we are communicating about our research using animals.

Posted on 12 June, 2015 by Dr Eva Sharpe

Over the last year I have been working closely with my colleagues at The Institute of Cancer Research, London, to look for more ways to communicate about our research using animals.

Research using animals has helped drive advances in cancer treatment that are benefiting people with cancer all over the world today, and we believe it is important to explain the critical role that animal research plays in building a complete picture of cancer biology.

The importance of communicating clearly and openly about animal research is not just a view held by the ICR; last year the ICR joined more than 70 organisations in signing a Concordat on Openness in Animal Research, committing to be open about their research using animals, so that members of the public can access accurate information about what animal research involves and the role it plays in science and medicine.

It is one year since the Concordat first launched, and I have been reflecting on the communications work we have done during this time. We are finding more ways to tell people about the work we are doing through different channels and I want to share some of these projects.

Filming a BBC documentary

One of the most exciting communications activities the ICR has been involved in recently has been working with the BBC on a major documentary about our research. The episode of Panorama called Can You Cure My Cancer? aired earlier this year and was the culmination of two years' collaboration with journalists.

A BBC film crew regularly came to visit the ICR to talk to our researchers about their latest work and film in our laboratories, including in our animal facility. The programme explained how cancer treatment is changing and becoming more personalised to the individual’s cancer. It showed how research is contributing to this dramatically changing field, including our research working with mice.

This included the story of how testing new drugs, known as ALK-inhibitors, in mice paved the way for clinical trials in humans. The programme also showed how researchers can use scanning techniques in mice to monitor the effect of cancer drugs they are investigating.

You can also hear about our work using mouse avatars – where a sample of a patient’s cancer is implanted into a mouse to seed the formation of a tumour. This innovative work can help researchers understand how tumours evolve to become resistant to treatment, and treating the mouse in the laboratory with different drugs could give valuable information about treatment of patients in the clinic.

If you want to watch the documentary and find out more about this research then the documentary is available on the BBC website and there’s more info on our website.

Proactive online communications

We’ve also launched a new dedicated section of our website about our animal research.

At the ICR we’ve always been open in our online communications, such as press releases, about the research that we do using animals, but this year we’ve proactively made more information available online.

To do this I’ve spent much of the last few months speaking to staff around the ICR about the research done here using animals, and developed these new webpages to feature this information alongside case studies. The webpages also highlight how our animal research is regulated by government and that we always have extremely high standards of welfare. We also explain how our work strictly follows the principles of the 3Rs – finding ways to replace the use of animals in research with alternative options, refine experimental procedures to improve welfare, and reduce the number of animals used in experiments.

As I spoke to researchers, I found the breadth of our research fascinating. In particular I was interested in our research to genetically alter mice to study the genetic causes of cancer. By doing this, researchers can reproduce tumour types which naturally occur in humans in the correct tissues and body systems in mice. This work gives valuable insight into the way that cancer develops and evolves and allows researchers to test treatments before they test them in people. I was pleased to hear that this approach has already yielded results, for example our work using mice to mimic childhood cancers.

Updating our position statement

For several years the ICR has had a statement outlining its view on research using animals, and this year we have taken the chance to update this to take into account some of the new initiatives we’ve been involved with more recently, such as promoting best practice in publishing the results of our animal research and signing the Concordat.

I worked with staff around the ICR – both scientific and non-scientific – to update this statement and got to hear about the new things we’ve been involved in, and discuss the best way to describe the things we want to say.

The position statement explains that the ICR believes that animal research is essential to understand how cancer develops and behaves within a whole organism and how to treat it effectively. You can read the whole statement here if you are interested in reading more.

Talking to the public

Public engagement is a fun and rewarding part of being a researcher – getting out there and meeting people not just to explain your research but also to hear what people think of it and give them chance to ask questions, find out more and debate with you.

Lots of researchers here at the ICR take part in these activities and I’ve realised this year how many of them have been explaining and discussing animal research at these events.

Whether this has involved talking to children at school visit or adults at debates and public lectures, our researchers have been giving information and answering on the animal research the ICR does and the benefit that comes from it.

For example, when we were asked at a recent event at the Science Museum how we could work out the right dose of a new drug to try in patients for the very first time, our speakers explained about the processes of safety testing in animals to help us work out a safe amount of the drug to give.

Information for staff around the ICR

And just as importantly, the ICR has made sure its own staff have information too. Not all staff at the ICR are researchers, and not all researchers here work with animals so it’s important that organisations like the ICR engage with staff who want to find out more.

This has included researchers talking about their work using animals at our regular seminar series for non-scientific staff here at the ICR, writing about animal research in our internal newsletter and this year we are launching our first, internal award for an ICR researcher for their openness about animal research.

That’s five of the ways we’ve been talking about animal research this year – as you can see it’s been a busy year! I hope you find the new resources interesting, and I’m sure we’ll be adding to them over the coming year. Watch this space!


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