When we think of medical research, we tend to think of inaccessible white-coated scientists working in a laboratory surrounded by test-tubes, and sometimes, sadly, testing on animals. So, it was fascinating to join Animal Free Research UK Bude Group members Steph Jones-Giles, Jackie Diffey and Emily Borrows on their visit to the University of Exeter to meet with Professor Lorna Harries. Lorna, a molecular geneticist working on a ground-breaking project funded by Animal Free Research UK is investigating diabetes, which is currently a significant problem for people in the UK.
How prevalent is diabetes?
Currently, 3.2 million people in the UK have been diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes, although estimates suggest that 175 million people in the UK have undiagnosed Type 2 diabetes. That is an awful lot of people, and it could be any one of us.
Research into diabetes involves experiments on hundreds of thousands of mice every year. Can research into diabetes be carried out without harming animals? The answer is a resounding yes! Animal Free Research UK is funding cutting-edge research at the University of Exeter which is doing just that.
The Sugar Mouse Appeal
Professor Harries told us about the amazing work undertaken at Exeter, of which she is understandably very proud. Her passion for her work shone through as she explained to our group of non-scientists how all research in her laboratory is animal-free. There were indeed white coats, but the laboratory equipment needed to conduct such cutting edge animal-free research is high-tech and expensive.
Professor Harries also conducts research on ageing, with the aim to help people stay healthier for longer. She explained: “This is about health span and quality of life, rather than merely extending lifespan.” The same principle applies to her diabetes research which is often a condition associated with ageing, something else we all do!
It was wonderful to learn more about Professor Harries’ research on diabetes funded by Animal Free Research UK, explained to us in lay terms, as this year’s fundraising focus for the Bude group is this pioneering diabetes research.
Research ‘nuts and bolts’
The researchers have been looking at the mechanisms underlying type 2 diabetes. After discovering evidence that a proportion of the beta cells in the pancreas that produce insulin aren’t dying (as was previously thought) but are changing into other types of cells, Professor Harries and Animal Free Research UK postdoctoral research associate Dr Nicola Jeffrey now want to find out why the cells alter their identity in this way, and whether this can be manipulated in some beneficial way.
However, they’ve gone above and beyond this and have discovered, amazingly, that while people should still be encouraged to eat healthily, this transformational process can be reversed, which could soon lead the way to treatments that will cure the condition.
Significantly, Instead of using traditional experiments on animals, such as mice, Professor Harries and Dr Jeffrey have developed a new scientific methodology using human pancreatic beta cell lines, which have been grown in the laboratory without the use of any animals. Lorna and Nicky’s discoveries surround cell transformations would never have been found if they had conducted mouse experiments, as mice cells don’t behave in the same way as human cells. More money is now needed to continue this pioneering research.
Sadly, hundreds of thousands of animals are experimented on every year to find treatments for diabetes. Many of the animals used in traditional diabetes research are mice and rats who have either been genetically manipulated or injected with a drug to kill their insulin-producing cells.
Prof. Harries and Dr Jeffrey explained that they use human-relevant methods because of the ethical reasons, but also because their research findings are immediately relevant and applicable to humans, leading to effective human treatments. Read more here.
To help raise money to ensure this animal-free research can continue, Bude group member, Jackie Diffey, plans to do a sponsored paddle for 20km, as part of the Bude group’s fundraising effort, which you can support here. We mentioned Jackie’s paddle in a previous article.
Jackie explained: In April 2019, I’m going to paddle a surf ski 20km on Bude Canal. My Mum had type 2 diabetes and complications that often go with it. I’m doing this in her memory on what would have been her 83rd birthday to raise much-needed funds to support some exciting research taking place at the University of Exeter.
This is research which could have a beneficial impact on any of us who may develop diabetes or know someone who has it, without causing any animal suffering.
Why research animal free? It’s better science!
Animal Free Research UK explained: “This is cutting-edge research at its best – these exciting discoveries would never have been made if they had carried out experiments on mice as the mouse pancreas, and how the cells within it communicate, is configured differently to ours.”
The Animal Free Research UK project is called The Sugar Mouse Appeal. The charity says:
We’re immensely proud that we have been funding this research – and immensely grateful to you for supporting the team through your generous donations to Animal Free Research UK.
But we urgently need to raise £60,000 to provide funding for the first of a further three years of this ground-breaking research project, so Lorna and Nicola can take their discovery forward – and closer to a cure.
- A gift of £15 could help pay for non-animal serum to grow human cells instead of the commonly used foetal calf serum (which comes from killing a pregnant cow and draining blood from the heart of her calf).
- A gift of £30 could help pay to extract RNA from human cells, which is vital to work out why beta cells are changing into other types of cells.
- A gift of £50 could help pay for a day of a research assistant’s time, helping Lorna and Nicola work towards developing a cure for type 2 diabetes.