Collaborative effort to reduce animal use and share best practice in ageing research

Ilaria Bellantuono and Adele Duran from ShARM offer further explanation in their blog post below.

With an increase in life expectancy there has been an increase in the onset of age-related diseases, such as osteoporosis, arthritis, stroke and diabetes. Research efforts to understand ageing and to find new treatments to help people stay healthy for longer are gaining momentum and a substantial amount of this research is performed using aged mouse models.

However, for researchers, working with mice in their old age presents several challenges, namely that it takes approximately 24-30 months for mice to reach old age, and that it is costly to maintain mice for such a long time. Moreover, the monitoring of welfare in old mice is more complex than in young mice, since it is difficult to differentiate between signs of ageing and signs of ill health. There is little consensus on this subject among researchers and a lack of joined up thinking has been limiting progress in this area of research.

To address the problem researchers are now joining forces to facilitate ageing research using mouse models. Funded by the Wellcome Trust and originally founded by researchers at the University of Sheffield, Newcastle and MRC Harwell, ShARM is based on the key concept that most researchers will often only use one or two tissues from each mouse for their study. For example, someone investigating osteoporosis may only use the bones. The rest of the animal, (including the heart, the lungs, the liver, as well as other tissues), is usually discarded. Investigators can now donate the unused tissues to ShARM to be stored so they are available for use by other researchers whenever they are needed. This ensures tissues from aged animals are available immediately and at a much reduced cost, but most importantly this reduces the number of animals used.

ShARM is a not-for-profit organisation and was launched in July 2012. Researchers are excited about the opportunities ShARM promises and are keen to participate. ShARM now has over 6,000 donated tissues preserved, either by freezing or formalin fixing and then embedding in paraffin wax, from C57BL/6 mice. The tissues are collected within a strict time frame to ensure that they are of a high quality. The feedback from those who have used ShARM tissue has been excellent so far. For those researchers who require tissues not available in the biorepository, ShARM has an online database of live ageing colonies held in the UK, enabling researchers to connect and arrange either donation of tissues or transfer of live animals directly to suit their needs.

Dr James Brown, Lecturer in Ageing Metabolism, Aston Research Centre for Healthy Ageing, Aston University; “Using tissues from ShARM has saved us time and money and has been invaluable in pursuing our research on ageing metabolism without the need for additional animal models.”

Information on the history of the mice, including the housing conditions, type of food, bedding, cages, welfare etc. is collected along with the tissues. The aim is that from the meta analysis of these data, valuable lessons will be identified and information will be shared among all investigators through MICEspace – an online collaborative environment allowing researchers and animal technicians involved with aged mice to interact, network and collaborate. MICEspace is still in its infancy but it is intended to bring together a large, engaged and active community of individuals with an interest in ageing research using murine models. A major goal of MICEspace is to share best practice in the rearing of ageing mice. This will include discussing and reaching consensus on issues such as the best practice for their care and deciding on humane endpoints which currently vary between institutions.

ShARM is more than just a tissue bank. Thanks to a well-organised barcode system each tissue stored has a unique ID that allows tracing of the animal and animal house from which the tissues originate. This means that any data published using any of the ShARM tissues can potentially be connected. For example, if a researcher performs whole genome expression analysis on a liver they would be able to compare their results with another investigator who has used the kidney from the same animals. This will increase the amount of information produced from the same set of data, therefore maximising resources.

Dr Donna Daly, Post Doctoral Researcher, University of Sheffield; “Our laboratory has both donated and used tissues from the ShARM biorepository.  The tissues we have obtained from ShARM were of excellent quality and has allowed us to generate preliminary data for grant applications and complete work for two publications.”

Scepticism sometimes surrounds facilities such as ShARM because they challenge the current way of working, but investigators involved in ShARM have been pleased by the support they have received from the research community in the short time that it has been operational. It’s hoped that more researchers will join the network to ensure every aged mouse is used to its full potential and research outputs are maximised.

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