Carla Owen is CEO of Animal Free Research UK.
Boosting economic growth and tackling key public health issues will inevitably rank high on our next prime minister’s priority list. The current economic climate and the continuing aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic have made these issues even more central.
Focussing on greater support and development of the biotech industry, and on getting its new, superior research methods – known as New Approach Methodologies (NAMs) – into research labs, would be a powerful act.
These NAMs, such as organ-on-a-chip and artificial intelligence, are already being embraced by biomedical researchers and the pharmaceutical industry. They better reflect patients, human diseases and human biology, and would generate transformative medical progress while providing a welcome boost to the economy.
Medical research is currently failing to generate the progress that patients so urgently need. As well as the impact on people and their families, this lack of progress puts significant pressure on public finances.
Just one example is Alzheimer’s disease, where clinical trial failures have been over 99 per cent. Meanwhile, research for the Alzheimer’s Society found that the total cost of dementia in the UK in 2019 was £34.7 billion.
The use of animal-based research techniques plays a significant role in this slow rate of progress, due to significant biological differences between species that prevent the translation of findings from animals to humans. Unsurprisingly, a 2019 scientific review found that it could not recommend any animal method that could reliably predict the efficacy of potential treatments for Alzheimer’s.
Now, the announcement of a national mission to tackle dementia has promised to double research funding and ‘build on recent advances in biological and data sciences, including genomics, AI and the latest brain imaging technology, to test new treatments from a growing range of possible options.’
We hope that this signals a willingness to embrace the potential of human relevant NAMs in tackling dementia and that our next prime minister will carry this forwards.
A powerful case for embracing human relevant science was made in a recent open letter to Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak, which called on the candidates to commit to supporting the uptake and development of these innovative techniques. This was signed by 30 experts in the field of human relevant biomedical research, including academic researchers at Oxford and Durham universities and representatives from cutting-edge biotech companies.
By offering the best possible chance of tackling devastating diseases, human-relevant NAMs can also help to reduce the economic impact of these major public health challenges.
For example, researchers at Animal Free Research UK’s Animal Replacement Centre of Excellence at the University of Exeter recently worked with human cells to achieve a breakthrough in the treatment and prevention of diabetes. This could not have been achieved using animal methods, due to genetic differences that complicate, rather than facilitate, our understanding of human diseases like diabetes. Diabetes UK estimates that the NHS spends at least £10 billion a year on diabetes (about ten per cent of its entire budget) so progress in this area could significantly benefit public finances.
The NAMs industry itself also has major economic potential. Last year, research from the Centre for Economics and Business Research, commissioned by Animal Free Research UK, predicted that the UK NAMs industry would contribute £2.5 billion to UK GDP by 2026.
The findings of a new survey suggest that support for accelerating human relevant innovation is shared by Conservative Party members. A recent YouGov survey, which was commissioned by Animal Free Research UK, found that 77 per cent of members would support the Government helping UK scientists replace animal experiments in medical research with new technologies such as computer modelling and organ-on-a-chip.
In fact, support for modernising medical research in this way is reflected by the wider public. For example, a YouGov poll commissioned in 2021 by Animal Free Research UK found that 68 per cent of respondents would support a policy ending animal experiments in medical research in the UK and replacing them with innovative, human-relevant alternatives.
In Eight steps to accelerate human relevant innovation, Animal Free Research UK sets out specific measures that the Government should take to support British scientists in becoming leaders in human relevant innovation. These are:
The appointment of a dedicated minister is particularly vital to ensure that progress is sustained. They would play a central role in coordinating the programme of practical support that received such strong support from Conservative Party members.
As we navigate the current financial and public health challenges, human-relevant research can propel the UK towards a healthier and more prosperous future. However, bold policy action will be needed to make this vision a reality. I hope that both leadership candidates will pledge to support human relevant science if they become the next prime minister.