Access all areas: BBC 5 Live and mouse research
Victoria Derbyshire’s BBC 5 Live show was broadcast from the ‘mouse house’ at MRC Harwell this week. MRC senior press officer Cathy Beveridge was there to witness journalists working alongside animal researchers, and reflects on talking about animal research ‘from behind closed doors’.
One of the first rules I learned as a science press officer is that the word ‘ground-breaking’ should be used sparingly, if at all. Yet it was one of the first things that BBC 5 Live presenter Victoria Derbyshire said as she began her broadcast from within the Mary Lyon Centre, the mouse house at MRC Harwell, this week. By producing a two-hour live radio programme from within an animal research laboratory, we were making history.
BBC 5 Live first approached us back in the summer to find out whether we could take part in a live programme that would showcase the issue of animal research ‘from behind closed doors’. For an issue so often the source of considerable ethical debate, animal research remains strangely intangible to the wider public. BBC 5 Live had previously tackled the issue of abortion from within a clinic and terrorism from Guantanamo Bay, so were clearly no strangers to controversial topics.
The researchers and operations and welfare staff at the Mary Lyon Centre regularly talk to members of the public about why their work is both necessary and important. The mouse house is home to around 50,000 genetically-modified mice at any one time, and the researchers use them to study a wide range of diseases from diabetes and obesity to Alzheimer’s and schizophrenia.
The staff understand that being open and honest about how animals are used in research is vital and that their work can’t progress without support from the public. However the idea of producing a live two-hour programme that would inevitably provoke difficult questions wasn’t without challenges.
We knew that the programme would be a success only if it managed to present a fair and balanced discussion of what animal research actually looks like in the real world, focusing on both the welfare of the mice and the science.
The programme centred around the ‘life of a research mouse’ within the centre, starting with the creation of modified mouse embryos, their daily life in the centre and how they are culled once the researchers have taken the information they need from them (a break to the neck has been shown to be the most humane way). It also covered another side of the centre’s work — how frozen modified mouse embryos and sperm are shared with partner biomedical research organisations across the world. This means that breeding isn’t duplicated, so fewer mice are used.
The broadcast took in almost every area of the centre and, at times, it did feel as if we were conducting a five-act opera (with 50,000 mice in the cast) and cues and prompts that could fall down at any moment. It’s testament to the dedication and energy of everyone who was involved that, instead, Victoria and her team could move freely from one area to another, describing what they saw and approaching everyone from a director of research to welfare staff with their questions.
Victoria’s first reaction to entering the ‘mouse house’ was that “10,000 mice in a room smells like haddock”. But it became clear that it’s an environment that people can become accustomed to in a short amount of time, even taking into account the need to be decked out in a tunic, boiler suit and hairnet to maintain the extremely high levels of hygiene. Much of this is down to the atmosphere created by the staff on the mouse ‘wards’ where I saw that researchers use a huge degree of care and respect in their interactions with the mice.
The programme was peppered throughout with calls, tweets and texts coming through from listeners. Unsurprisingly, the reaction was both positive and negative. It’s clearly a topic that people are hungry to know more about, and I’m pleased that we were able to reveal something of the world of animal research to a clearly interested public.
Listen to the show here.
Watch a tour of the mouse house here.