Ethical vision

Keith Martin has been honoured for work on a stem-cell research for retinal injuries that cuts the need for animal experiments

February 26, 2009

An expert in glaucoma has won an award for sight-saving stem-cell research that promises to reduce the use of animals in the treatment of patients with injured retinas.

Ophthalmologist Keith Martin, group leader of the University of Cambridge's Centre for Brain Repair, has been awarded the £10,000 prize by the National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research (NC3Rs), an independent scientific organisation.

Phil Willis, chairman of the House of Commons Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Select Committee, presented Dr Martin with the prize, sponsored by GlaxoSmithKline, at a recent ceremony.

Dr Martin and his PhD student, Thomas Johnson, are investigating the potential of stem cells to protect vulnerable nerve cells in injured retinas. They aim to develop new treatments for glaucoma, the leading cause of irreversible blindness across the globe, and other eye diseases.

Until now, this work has involved injecting cells into the eyes of anaesthetised animals, but Dr Martin and Mr Johnson have pioneered a new method.

"Using live animals, although still essential for some of our work, is time-consuming, potentially stressful to the animals and requires large numbers to achieve reliable results," Dr Martin said. "We have developed a new technique that allows us to keep tissue from a rat's eye alive for 17 days."

This allows stem cells to be transplanted into living tissue in a controlled environment. The research has shown that eye tissue thus treated remains healthy and retains the ability to make fresh proteins, Dr Martin said.

"The tissue also responds to stem-cell transplantation in a similar way to the eyes of living animals."

The method not only replaces the use of live animals, but has led to an eightfold reduction in the number of creatures used, as eight sections of tissue can be obtained from one rat.

Mr Willis said: "The work of these outstanding scientists demonstrates graphically the value of engaging with the NC3Rs, and that science can be enhanced, not hindered, by considering animal-welfare issues."

Jackie Hunter, senior vice-president of science environment development at GlaxoSmithKline, said the quality of submissions for the award showed that researchers understood that animal use had an ethical dimension. Truly innovative approaches could lead to improvements in animal welfare as well as breakthroughs in science, she said.

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