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17/09/2014

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From wary to willing

Geoff Watts is reassured

Overall, participants in the dialogue accepted and were supportive of research involving animals containing human material research in principle. The majority of participants gave their support based on the assumption that the aims of this research would be to improve human health and cure human disease. It was generally felt that where research had these aims it would be acceptable despite any concerns that they had.– from Exploring the boundaries.1

To inject a mouse with human liver cells and so endow it with what then amounts to a human liver may not excite much concern outside anti-vivisection circles. But what of more exotic interventions? How about a rat harbouring human reproductive cells? Or a primate with human nerve cells growing inside its brain? Even among people with no principled objection to animal experimentation, such procedures might well induce a degree of queasiness.

Academy study

In fact it’s now many years since researchers first introduced human material into laboratory animals with a view to understanding more of the origins and nature of various diseases, and devising new ways of treating them. The material itself may take the form of genes, cells, tissues or whole organs. But although long established, work of this kind surely still retains the potential to excite public suspicion or even hostility.

Given the importance to biomedical research of animals containing human material, the Academy of Medical Sciences is undertaking a review of the field, through an expert group chaired by Cambridge geneticist Professor Martin Bobrow CBE FRS FMedSci. The aim is to ensure that research of this kind can go ahead within a robust ethical and regulatory framework.  The study will also consider how this type of research is perceived by the public – hence the Academy’s decision to commission a public dialogue to feed into the study. 

Caution

When, as a member of the Academy’s Communications Group, I heard of the plan, my immediate response was, ‘Tread warily’. Where would a public conversation on this topic – one with a fair degree of scientific complexity, and plenty of potential for emotive response – take us?

Further doubts stemmed from a previous encounter I’d had with public engagement several years ago, when I’d suggested that a citizens’ jury would be a useful means of gauging informed public opinion on an issue. I’d been left with an impression that these things can turn out to be an expensive non-event. Or worse, as it seemed that in some circles notions of how this work should be conducted were becoming elevated to a state bordering on theology, and taking undue precedence over content, or public concerns.  

Reassurance

Happily the next few months were reassuring. My reservations evaporated as the consortium commissioned to plan and implement the study presented us with a strategy which inspired confidence that they understood what was needed.2

This is not the place to detail the report’s findings, but as the quote above makes clear, when given a reasoned account of why scientists want to perform experiments of this type and what they hope to achieve, and the chance to explore it for themselves, many people seem willing to offer conditional agreement and support.

It’s worth a read - not least if your faith in the value of public dialogue has, for whatever reason, faltered.

An independent evaluation of the dialogue, conducted by Laura Grant Associates, indicates that participants found the workshops interesting, informative, and thought-provoking, and valued the opportunity to exchange their views:

“It was good to meet living and breathing scientists, and I will be looking to get involved in similar discussions again” (Newcastle)

“Some of my strong opinions have been changed simply because of the knowledge gained” (London)

1Exploring the boundaries: public dialogue on animals containing human material is at http://www.acmedsci.ac.uk/index.php?pid=209

2 The dialogue was commissioned through the Sciencewise-ERC programme, and delivered by a consortium led by IpsosMORI, including Dialogue by Design and the British Science Association.

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Dr Geoff Watts
Dr Geoff Watts is a Fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences and a member of the oversight group for the dialogue.
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