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Researchers look at new ways of replacing and reducing lab animal tests

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By Danielle Reeves
31 July 2006

Two research teams from Imperial College London will develop new ways to reduce the use and suffering of animals in medical testing, thanks to new grants announced today.

The National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research's (NC3Rs) annual grant round has made awards totalling over GBP300,000 to Dr Michael Emerson Opens in new window from Imperial's Division of Biomedical Sciences, and Professor Sian Harding and Dr Nadire N Ali from Imperial's National Heart and Lung Institute.

Dr Emerson will be carrying out research to refine the way mice are currently used in understanding the causes of blood clots in the lungs (pulmonary embolism), and to minimise the level of suffering they experience.

Pulmonary embolism can occur when blood clots form in the large veins of the legs, and travel up to the lungs where they lodge, causing heart and breathing problems, and often death. Common in hospital patients and the elderly, these clots can also occur in people sitting in economy class on long haul flights.

At present, to study this condition, blood clots are induced in mice, which results in paralysis and death. Dr Emerson proposes a new way of carrying out the research where the mice can be anaesthetised, suffering neither paralysis or death in the process.

Dr Emerson explains that blood clots which form in pulmonary embolism contain platelets. By radioactively labelling these platelets you can detect whether they build up in the chest as a way of testing the effectiveness of new treatments for blood clots. Dr Emerson said: "With this method you can also use smaller amounts of the substances which induce embolism in the mice, which means that they are not paralysed and do not die." What's more, the same mouse can be used to collect more information so the total number of animals used is reduced.

Professor Sian Harding and Dr Nadire N Ali's grant will be used to develop alternative ways of researching heart disease, without using animals at all. Current heart disease research uses animal models because there is no suitable in vitro alternative - primarily because animal and human cardiac myocytes (a type of heart cell) do not survive outside the body for more than a few days, severely limiting their research potential. Instead, Professor Harding and Dr Ali will use cardiac myocytes grown from embryonic stem cells, which they have observed beating in the laboratory for more than five months at a time.

Professor Harding has shown that, by measuring the strength of beating in these heart cells, she can record their response to a number of chemicals currently being investigated for their role in causing heart failure. She said: "We can then compare these results to many we have collected from adult human cardiac myocytes, taken from tissue donated during routine surgery. This will demonstrate to what extent these embryonic stem cell-derived myocytes are suitable for use in heart disease research, and for future use in drug development and safety testing."

The grants received by Imperial are two of eight totalling £1.4 million being awarded by the NC3Rs this year. The NC3Rs was launched in September 2004 by Lord Sainsbury, Minister for Science, to provide a focus for 3Rs activity in the UK. The NC3Rs brings together stakeholders from academia, industry, government and animal welfare organisations to facilitate the exchange of information and ideas, and the translation of research findings into practice that will benefit both animals and science.