Our discovery won us a ‘Highly Commended’ award from the National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research (NC3Rs). This annual prize is for the scientific paper that contributes most to reducing the use of laboratory animals or improving their welfare. We won a £4,000 research grant and a £1,000 personal award. Our 2011 paper, in the journal of Experimental Neurology, describes our model of the mechanisms the brain uses to repair damage caused by diseases like multiple sclerosis.
Multiple sclerosis is a disease of the central nervous system. It only affects humans which makes it very difficult to study at a molecular level in model organisms. Our work involves developing and testing new therapies for nerve cells damaged by multiple sclerosis. Unfortunately testing means lots of live animals.
In multiple sclerosis, immune cells enter the brain and cause inflammation and demyelination. This is where the protective covering of myelin around nerves is damaged. The brain can repair this damage by a process called remyelination. But this is not very efficient and frequently fails. Lots of rats and mice are used in attempting to reproduce demyelination and to test medicines that could help promote remyelination.
We discovered that slices of brain taken from very young mice and grown in a dish keep the 3D structure. This enables us to use normal cells of the brain to test the effectiveness of medicines that might improve remyelination. 40 live mice used to be needed to test one potential medicine but now we only need to use slices from 2 mouse brains to get the same information. Also, by automating the way we measure remyelination, analysis now takes seconds rather than hours!
Researchers using animals in their work always look for ways to reduce the numbers they use, so our work is important for animal welfare. The increased speed of testing will also aid research and bring hope to people with multiple sclerosis.
Dr Anna Williams, MRC Centre for Regenerative Medicine