Despite the unseasonably warm weather, it’s clearly the end of the holiday season. Having had some time off recently allowed me some time for reading. This not only involved the usual cheap thriller but also an opportunity to catch up on other books that have been sitting on the shelf.

One book that I think is particularly relevant in this age of big data was ‘The Signal and the Noise: the art and science of prediction’ by Nate Silver. He is a statistician and political forecaster and the book addresses some of the issues we face when the growth of data exceeds our capacity to process it. He warns of the dangers of becoming ‘too starry-eyed’ about what science and technology might accomplish and of inferring causality from mere correlation. How much of the information we are generating is useful and how best to detect the signal in the noise in the exponentially increasing amounts of data will be key challenges for all of us in the life sciences going forward. One area where this is exceptionally true is genomics – given the past investments that we and others have made in the generation and interpretation of genomic data, e.g. through ELIXIR, I think the UK is now well placed to take a lead in this area.

Copyright: Jackie Hunter
Jackie’s own beagles. Copyright: Jackie Hunter

Time off in the summer also allowed time for more gardening and dog walking. Unfortunately one of our two beagles now appears to have epilepsy although the cause is as yet unknown. It is likely that he will have to go onto permanent anti-epileptic medication similar to that used in people. His sister was also diagnosed last year with steroid-responsive meningitis – this is not always responsive to steroids although in her case, luckily, it was. I have to say that this was one time when taking out insurance paid off although I would much rather not have had the occasion to use it. It is also a timely reminder that medications primarily developed for people can also benefit animals and indeed there is further need for better medications for a range of conditions in both animals and man.

In drug discovery and development there is a need for dogs to be used – primarily in toxicological studies. The science community is committed to reducing, refining and replacing animals in research and they are only used where there is no alternative. But in many cases the use of animals is a necessity. A non-rodent species was mandated for toxicology studies following the thalidomide disaster, where the limb defects in people, were not seen in the rats and rabbits that up until that point had been species of choice for such studies. The number of dogs used is relatively small (0.09% of all animals, Home Office 2014) and great care is taken to ensure high welfare standards.

However, at present many decisions on housing and husbandry for laboratory dogs are based on personal experience or anecdotal evidence. Beagles are the dog of choice for such studies for a number of reasons, so I was pleased to see that Laura Hall, funded by a BBSRC Industrial CASE studentship and supervised by Professor Hannah Buchanan-Smith at the University of Stirling and Dr Sally Robinson from AstraZenenca, has developed a practical framework for harmonising welfare and quality of data for dogs used in research. The team developed tools which allow staff to monitor welfare in the home pen, to examine the effects of changes to housing, husbandry and scientific protocols, and to identify dogs which require additional support.

More broadly animal, as well as plant, health has been the subject of a major review carried out by GO-Science and Defra with the involvement of funders such as BBSRC. A workshop was held at the beginning of September in London when some of the key findings were discussed and the final report should be available next month. I am looking forward to leading the subgroup who will be developing the strategy for animal and plant health in the UK for the next 5-10 years as this is an area that is vitally important both economically and societally.

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