Hodgkin Building on Guy’s Campus seems like any other old university building. Although it looks beautiful and green (because of the ivy and moss growing on it) from the outside; inside, it’s dark, dull, damp and you can get lost quite easily into a maze of doors, stair cases and corridors, a lot of doors that you don’t have access to as a student. It is a regular old building when I go to it for my lectures, labs or tutorials but seemed quite different on one Monday in early May when I got a chance to visit the animal research facilities there.
I was led, up one of the stair cases, to the office of Kenneth Applebee who is the director of Biological Services at King’s College London. His job is to take care of the welfare of the animals and of the welfare of the staff working in these facilities. While waiting there, I got to find out quite a lot about the use of animals in scientific research from the perspective of a person who is involved in it. He talked about why it is important to use animals in scientific research, public perception of animal research and the laws and ethics surrounding it.
In U.K you can only use animals in research if the research is for medical purposes, it is done humanely and there is no alternative to it; you are not allowed to use animals for cosmetic testing. Kenneth said, “It’s difficult sometimes to explain to general public how we do it and why we do it”. Mainly, because most of the time, general public does not understand the difference between medical research and cosmetic testing. There is also a general perception that animals are treated very inhumanely and that people carrying out the research or working there somehow enjoy all this. About this Kenneth said, “You can’t say people enjoy animal research, you have to do it because you have to do it”. He also added, “Researching on animals does not mean you don’t respect them.” This is what I found as well. The staff working in animal facilities become quite emotionally attached to them. Kenneth also mentioned that everything is open to the public and they have even had school visits to the animal facilities.
After my conversation with Kenneth, I was led up another stair case, into an old fashioned lift and through a series of doors, this time, to the animal research facility where 37 marmosets are kept for research on developing new drugs for Parkinson’s disease. Here, I met Dr Sarah Rose who heads this research. Before we could go in to look at the marmosets, we had to wear special lab coats and plastic shoes over our clothes to make sure the research space is not contaminated. First, we visited the room where naïve marmosets are kept. These are marmosets that are not given Parkinson’s disease. They started making chirping noises and started running and jumping about in their cages as we entered. Dr Rose said that it wasn’t normal behaviour; the marmosets get excited when they see new people. Then, visited the other room where there was a special cage. The special thing about this cage was that the marmosets kept here were given Parkinson’s so that their behaviour can be compared with the normal marmosets and new drugs tested on them.
During my visit Dr Rose explained in detail about her research and the importance of using animal models. Parkinson’s is a neurodegenerative disease that causes severe shaking in the body and leads to slowness of movement, dementia and depression. She explained that Parkinson’s is a disease that cannot be tested in a cell culture and so we need animal models. She said, “around 80 per cent drugs
used in Parkinson’s have been investigated here”. She said that the research facility has strong links with the Parkinson’s Disease Society and they are “really supportive of the work for finding drugs that slow progress of the disease”. “It transforms people’s lives” she added. She also explained that the welfare of these marmosets is a high priority in their lab. “Good healthy animals are important for science”, she said. She explained that they have 24 hour medical cover and access to the vets and after every experiment, marmosets are given treats such as marshmallows and Scotch pancakes. She also mentioned that people working in this lab become emotionally attached to these marmosets, she said, “it takes a long time to get really good at looking after marmosets. Marmosets recognise people. Bit like a pet.” Regarding public transparency she said, “Everything we do is published. Everyone can see exactly what we do”.
After visiting the lovely and cute marmosets, one of the staff members offered to take me down to one of the basements of Hodgkin Building to the facility where the magical zebra fish are kept. Going down in the small, old, creaking lift, it felt like we would never reach the basement but we did. As the lift door opened you could smell the dampness coming from the zebra fish facility. This zebra fish facility has the capacity to hold 50,000 zebra fish and is the biggest of its kind in Europe. After putting sterile plastic shoes over my own and wearing sterile nitrile gloves, I was led into one of the aquariums of the facility by the Zebra Fish Facility Manager. The sight of the aquarium was unlike anything I had seen before. There were rows and rows of thousands of zebra fish kept in different compartments. Some were big, some were small and some even glowed! Zebra fish kept here are used for a range of different experiments by different researchers at King’s. The manager explained that the facility is like a zebra fish bank. Whenever, a researcher requires zebra fish for their research, they contact the facility Manager and are given the fish of the right size, age and specie. To manage this, King’s use state-of –the-art robot technology. Robot feeders are used to feed thousands of zebra fish kept here and to filter and clean all the water, there is a filter room located at the back of the aquarium which runs 24 hours day, 7 days a week and 360 days a year.
So next time you go past Hodgkin Building, don’t think it’s just any old regular university building, a lot of interesting research goes on in there.
To find out more about animal research, you can visit this website: http://www.understandinganimalresearch.org.uk/resources/video-library/33/marmosets-and-research-into-parkinsons-disease/