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Turning research into reality

Professor Raimondo Ascione

A new centre will take lab research into hospitals, where it benefits patients. Professor Raimondo Ascione talks translational science with Sarah Kidner.

“Roughly 50 per cent of my time I’m a heart surgeon, and the other 50 per cent I’m doing research,” says Professor Raimondo Ascione.

This balance makes him the ideal head of a new multimillion-pound Translational Biomedical Research Centre (TBRC) in Langford, near Bristol. We’re funding it alongside the University of Bristol and the Medical Research Council. Its role is to get research out of the laboratory, to a point where patients worldwide can access groundbreaking treatments as quickly as possible.

Often, we share the same problems as animals

Translational medicine aims to take lab science performed ‘in vitro’ – in a test tube or on cells or molecules outside of the body – and prove it has positive healing effects on a whole living organism.

If so, it can be considered for human trials. Prior to human trials, some treatments are tested in animals, but only when there’s no other way to confirm they are safe and have beneficial health outcomes.

Researchers use experimental models that are relevant to human disease and anatomy, and perform the tests in state-of-the-art translational facilities, such as the TBRC. “The UK has world-class science and a strong NHS research setting but lacks a bridge between these two worlds, which the TBRC can provide,” explains Professor Ascione.

Welfare state

While animal research is critical to the centre, animal welfare and full adherence to Home Office regulations are fundamental considerations. The TBRC is strategically housed at the University of Bristol Langford Campus to benefit from its world-renowned expertise for research on animal welfare.

The centre will also benefit from clinical and academic veterinary expertise on site and a state-of-the-art imaging scanner and catheter lab, allowing researchers to take repeated scans of living animals. This will help scientists test new treatments to NHS standards and significantly reduce the number of animals required.

TBRC and a catheter lab funds“It is no longer necessary to perform experiments on multiple animals that would be put to sleep at different stages to see the effect of an intervention,” says Professor Ascione.

“In our centre, a procedure done on a single animal can be tracked, non-invasively, over time, just as we do in NHS patients, using sophisticated scanning techniques. Given the on-site veterinary and animal welfare expertise, we can be sure that the animals are treated with the same care and sensitivity as human patients.”

There’ll also be a biobank on site – a long-term store for cells collected post-mortem that will reduce future need for animal tissue samples. “We’ll keep stem cells, spare eggs and tissues alive for 20 years or longer, just as it is done in the NHS,” says Professor Ascione. “By storing them in this way, we can reduce the number of animals necessary for our research.”

The TBRC will follow the One Health initiative to benefit people, animals and the environment. Research done here will improve the lives of many animals.

“Often, we share the same problems as animals – tumours, clots and blockages. Veterinary clinicians and scientists, with NHS doctors, will undertake research at the TBRC to develop new methods to treat pets,” says Professor Ascione. “Often, this is a simple case of adapting treatments already established in humans.”

Deep impact

Professor Ascione moved from Italy to the UK in the 1990s and has since experienced moving his own research into practice. In 1998, he and BHF Professor Gianni Angelini explored the benefits of conducting heart surgery without a heart-lung machine. This is now a routine procedure in the NHS and worldwide.

Currently, Professor Ascione is working on two world-first trials (funded by the BHF and the National Institute for Health Research) exploring the use of stem cells derived from the patient’s own bone marrow to repair hearts after a heart attack. Results are being analysed and will be made public soon. This type of work will be helped greatly by the Bristol facility.

It is no longer necessary to perform experiments on multiple animals

Others at the centre are making great strides too. “I’m the TBRC Director, but there is a national network of about 120 scientists spanning NHS trusts, academic institutions and veterinary science and practices, many with a strong cardiovascular interest,” he says.

“There is cardiovascular research work already funded by the BHF, Medical Research Council and other top UK charities waiting to be undertaken at the TBRC.

“I regard myself as lucky to sit as the interface between the university, the NHS and the veterinary worlds, acting both as a researcher and as a facilitator of new cross-fertilising academic partnerships. Ultimately, I like to do heart operations that make a difference to people’s life expectancy and quality of life. That’s what this centre is all about.”

Research involving animals

By studying new medicines and techniques in human cells in the lab first, before carefully trialling the most successful ones in animals, we’ve done all we can to make sure they’re going to be effective and safe for treating patients. For example:

  • Potential new heart medicines that work on human cells in the lab must be assessed in a living system before trials in patients can be carried out.
  • Animal studies can reveal problems with new treatments, allowing dangerous side effects to be spotted before clinical trials.
  • Current research includes studying how the heart develops in mice and fish, so we can better understand why babies are born with heart defects.

The research community is constantly developing new techniques to reduce the number of animals needed.

Scientists we fund carry out as much research as possible on human volunteers, cells or computer models. However, until we find an alternative method that can reproduce the complicated working of our hearts and circulatory systems, replacing all animals in research is not yet possible.

The three Rs

When deciding what research to fund, every grant application we receive goes through an exhaustive independent peer review system. This ensures all BHF- funded scientists follow a clear set of principles – the three Rs – to reduce the number of animals used and to maximise their welfare:

  • Replace with non-animal alternatives where possible.
  • Reduce the number of animals used.
  • Refine the care of animals to achieve the highest welfare standards.

When researchers we fund carry out studies in animals, they are done in line with strict Home Office guidelines. Our research has led to life saving medical advances for heart patients over the past half-century. But we can do even more and, for the foreseeable future, that will involve animal research.

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