A double win – tackling developing world disease and reducing use of animals in research

The winner of the third annual 3Rs Prize is Dr Charlotte Gower.

By harnessing the latest DNA technology researchers have developed a better way to study the parasites that cause bilharzia, a serious disease affecting the developing world, and replaced the use of animals in their research at the same time. The work has been awarded the NC3Rs 3Rs Prize 2007 today (16 January 2008).

Dr Charlotte Gower, Department of Infectious Disease Epidemiology at Imperial College London, was presented with the GlaxoSmithKline-sponsored £10k prize by Ian Pearson MP, Minister of State for Science and Innovation at the annual stakeholder meeting of the NC3Rs.

Dr Gower works in the laboratory of Professor Joanne Webster to carry out research on schistosomes, the worm-like parasites that cause bilharzia, a tropical disease affecting an estimated 200 million people worldwide. The disease can be seriously debilitating, causing long term liver and intestinal damage, and can sometimes be fatal. Dr Gower's prize has been awarded for a new application of DNA fingerprinting which replaces the need for using animals in this research area and improves the value and accuracy of her results.

Dr Gower said: "We have taken advantage of recent advances in how DNA can be stored at room temperature and characterised from minute samples in order to collect our parasite DNA samples directly from infected people in areas where the disease is endemic. Previously, we had to grow the parasites in the laboratory for study by collecting worm eggs from human faeces and using them to infect snails and then rodents.

"Using the non-animal techniques has also improved our scientific results because we can now reflect the genetic variation in the natural population of parasites. We demonstrated that the traditional method of growing parasites can bias results by skewing the genetic variation."

Mr Pearson said: "Animal research plays a vital role in medical advances and human health but Government is committed to the replacement, refinement and reduction of animals in research. In fact it is an area where we are leading the world. The 3Rs prize rewards an outstanding example of what the 3Rs can achieve. This is good news for animals and good news for science.

"We have recently doubled our funding for this important area of science to increase its impact still further. Our increased investment recognises the ethical concerns some in society have over the use of animals in research and testing."

Dr Paul Trennery, Senior Vice President, GlaxoSmithKline, said: "We all believe that the pursuit of good science means that we scrutinise and continually improve on our methods, such that we continue to operate to the very highest standards in all areas of scientific endeavour.  This applies in equal measure to our work with animals and the development of new medicines. It is therefore a welcome opportunity for GSK to be sponsoring this annual award as a reflection of this commitment.  The awards also demonstrate how far reaching the impact of the 3Rs can be, from health applications to the safety of crop protection chemicals, and it demonstrates that all sectors are working to make a difference in this important area."

Dr Vicky Robinson, chief executive of the NC3Rs, said: "It is hugely encouraging to see these examples of science in the UK that combine the use of the latest techniques with a reduction in the use of animals. We had a really strong field of applicants this year, and Dr Gower's elegant work can hopefully be expanded to the study of other parasites with help of her prize money."

Schistosomiasis, or bilharzia as it is more commonly known, is caused by parasitic infection. The natural lifecycle of the parasite involves both snail and mammalian hosts, with transmission between the two hosts occurring via a larval form in infested freshwater. Little is known about how the genetic and strain variations of the schistosome parasites in different endemic areas might affect disease patterns. A better understanding will help in combating the disease more effectively and monitoring disease control programmes which are currently ongoing in Africa.

Large numbers of snails and laboratory mammals, particularly rodents, have been infected to obtain parasite material for study in the past. Studies of how parasites vary between individuals would be particularly high in animal use because up to 10 animals are needed to maintain a supply of material for every human sampled for the parasite.

Because the field of entries was so strong this year, the 3Rs Prize selection panel also awarded a Highly Commended prize of £1k to Dr John Doe from Syngenta. Dr Doe's publication describes an improved 'tiered' testing approach to assessing the safety of agricultural chemicals. The approach utilises the latest scientific evidence and has the potential to reduce the number of rats, dogs and mice used to test the safety of agricultural chemicals by 16%, 33% and 100% respectively. This project, and many of its recommendations, is being considered by major regulatory authorities.

Winning paper:

Gower C, Shrivastava J, Lamberton P, Rollinson D, Webster BL, Emery A, Kabatereine N and Webster JP (2007) Development and application of an ethically and epidemiologically advantageous assay for the multi-locus microsatellite analysis of Schistosoma mansoni. Parasitology 134 523-536.

Highly commended paper:

Doe J, Boobis A, Blacker A, Dellarco V, Doerrer N, Franklin C, Goodman J, Kronenberg J, Lewis R, McConnell E, Mercier T, Moretto A, Nolan C, Padilla S, Phang W, Solecki R, Tilbury L, van Ravenzwaay B, and Wolf D. (2006) A tiered approach to systemic toxicity testing for agricultural chemical safety assessment. Critical Reviews in Toxicology 36 37-68.

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