Inaugural prize given for improving animal welfare in research

A researcher's innovative approach to refining medical research on animals has been awarded the inaugural Replacement, Refinement and Reduction (3Rs) Prize.

The 3Rs prize was awarded by the National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research (NC3Rs) today (Wednesday 25 January 2006).

Dr Siouxsie Wiles of Imperial College London, who was awarded the GlaxoSmithKline-sponsored £10k prize by Lord Sainsbury, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Science and Innovation, carries out research into how the strains of E. coli bacteria that are potentially lethal infect the body. She discovered that allowing the mice she used in her work to naturally infect each other with bacteria improved the welfare of the animals and reduced the number of mice needed by achieving greater rates of infection than with previous techniques. 

Outbreaks of E. coli can be fatal and were recently responsible for the deaths of children in Wales and France through contaminated meat. A better understanding of how E. coli works is badly needed and could pave the way for the development of new antimicrobial agents and the identification of targets for vaccination.

Dr Vicky Robinson, Chief Executive of the NC3Rs, said: "This elegantly simple approach to improving the welfare of animals in research is an excellent first recipient of our new prize. The aim was to give a prize for work that replaced, refined or reduced the use of animals in research to highlight the importance of these principles to both the public and other scientists.

"Encouragingly, it is possible that this technique could be applied with equal success in other laboratories and with other types of disease research. What is clearly demonstrated, though, is that improving conditions for animals in research is not just about applying technological advances but can also involve thinking differently about experimental design. The end result can benefit both the animals used and the quality of the science produced."

Lord Sainsbury said: "The Government established the national centre in 2004 to cut down on the use of animals in research and find better alternatives to replace them. The use of animals in research plays a vital role in developing ground-breaking medicines and treatments for diseases such as HIV and Aids, Alzheimers and cancer.

"Animal research saves lives, but wherever possible alternatives should be used, improvements introduced or reductions made in the number of animals required.  I congratulate the centre for setting up this inaugural award which recognises researchers' efforts to improve the way they use animals while they carry out their crucial work."

Dr Wiles said: "We have seen that the consequence of deliberate exposure to lab-grown microbes the way that most animal models of infection are made differs greatly from the effect of accidental or natural exposure seen in daily life.  I will use this award to study the implications of these differences, for example, on the immune system.

"By allowing natural transmission of infection we are more closely mirroring the human situation and refining our research strategy.  As scientists we have an ethical and legal responsibility to implement the 3Rs whenever possible and in our case this has made our model more relevant to the disease we are studying. I hope this will encourage other researchers to stop and think about whether this might be the case for them too."

In her research, Dr Wiles infects mice with bacteria from the same family as E. coli to study the paths of infection. Traditionally, every mouse has been infected by putting a tube down its throat to deliver the bacteria to the stomach - a process called gavage. However, Dr Wiles decided to try infecting only one mouse in this way, then putting it in a cage with uninfected mice and letting nature take its course.

The results showed higher infection rates than the traditional technique. But more importantly, the research was refined so that far fewer animals were subjected to gavage, and the new approach also reduced the total number of animals used by improving the reliability of infection.

For further information on the 3Rs Prize, visit our webapge

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