Lars Bräutigam is an expert on zebrafish and runs the core facility at Karolinska Institutet (KI). He works within the field of cancer research. He is also a member of the Swedish National Committee for the Protection of Animals used for Scientific Purposes.
In this interview, Lars Bräutigam shares the 3Rs work at Karolinska Institutet and his ambitions as a new member of the National Committee.
I moved from Germany to Sweden and Stockholm in 2003 for an internship at a lab at Karolinska. One thing followed another; I completed a master thesis and then my PhD – and I am still here. Family and all. Today, I am the manager of the zebrafish core facility at KI and I support others in their research studies.
Before I became the manager of the zebrafish facility, my own research focused on developmental biology, mainly the vascular system and the nervous system, as well as cancer research. In all these, I used zebrafish models. Some of the things I study in zebrafish are not possible to study likewise in another living animal. The fish embryos are completely transparent and it is fascinating how one can follow what happens in a body in real time.
The zebrafish is the second most used laboratory model organism in the EU. It helps us to answer fundamental questions in developmental biology and is today a central animal model in medical research. The use of zebrafish will for sure replace lots of rats and mice in research in the future. The movement is already visible in the statistics of used animals.
At KI, zebrafish models are used in studies as diverse as cancer research, research on neurodegenerative diseases like ALS, and environmental toxicity tests. For example, we have an ongoing project with the Swedish Environmental Research Institute (IVL Svenska Miljöinstitutet), in which we do toxicity tests of mine water from northern Sweden.
In 2020, we opened our new core facility and this was a true breaking point for us to work more in terms of Good Laboratory Practice, GLP. I am convinced that a proper standardisation is effective for the research outcome.
We have taken the lead and developed together with other zebrafish researchers in Sweden the national laboratory animal science course on the zebrafish animal model, implemented in the national consortium NCLASET’s program. This course used to be general for all kind of fish, now it is zebrafish specific.
This fall, we initiate the formation of an official Nordic zebrafish network. Nordic organisations have met several times before the pandemic, but in a more informal way. Now we will try to establish a formal network, the purpose of which will be to standardise and harmonise education, training and animal welfare. We will meet in Stockholm in November to formalise the network and to decide on which orientation to take.
The most important factor for the 3Rs is the animal technicians and a committed staff. We work hard to make sure that the animal always comes first in our facility. We systematically work to refine animal welfare when it comes to handling of the zebrafish, housing, enrichment of tanks, the social grouping and interaction, as well as the gender mix in a tank – it is all about what’s best for the individual fish.
We collaborate with a tech supplier to develop new enrichment which is both beneficial for animal welfare and safe to use. We just came up with a separator made out of the same material as our tanks. It’s a kind of transparent sheet that is placed in the tank to make new hiding spots and playgrounds for the fish.
We reuse fish by letting “old” fish become social playmates for fish in studies that need minor amounts of fish models in a tank. We also reduce the total use of fish by sharing our “old” fish with colleagues at Lund University. They need older fish in certain studies and these fish would otherwise have been euthanized.
Another thing, which I personally think is a 3Rs effort, is public relations. We as researchers need to openly share why we still need to do experiments in animals in certain areas of biomedical research, for example to find new treatments for diseases or, not to forget, develop vaccines against viruses like corona, but also talk about all our efforts to reduce and refine those animal experiments.
For example, we will have a public open house at the zebrafish facility during the Nobel calling event in the beginning of October.
I think that my expertise within the zebrafish area and my broad network can be of importance. I want to raise awareness of the zebrafish as a research model and its contribution to reducing the usage of mice and rats in research. One of my priorities for the National Committee is to support the standardisation of animal welfare and the 3Rs in zebrafish research. Another demand is to establish a database for transgenic fish lines, to facilitate sharing and thereby reducing the total use of zebrafish.
With a national committee we can gather and unite different stakeholders within the area; researchers, veterinarians, animal rights organisations and developers of new methods and models – together we can form a realistic and relevant strategy for the 3Rs progress in Sweden.
Another important task for the National Committee and the 3Rs Center, is to run projects that aim to improve things in practice within animal research. For example, the upcoming recommendations on how to handle mice; not lifting them by the tail. This is how we can make progress, when we act or speak out as a group.
I also think that we can do more to communicate with the regional ethics committees about their reviews. We should have a trustful and mutual dialogue, to let them learn about the 3Rs and the resources we offer from the 3Rs Center – all in the interest of both animals and research.