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The COVID-19 pandemic has had profound effects on the life sciences industry, causing many research programs to temporarily halt as many stay-at-home orders have come into effect worldwide.
GEN spoke to Rob Taft, PhD, Senior Services Program Manager at The Jackson Laboratory (JAX) in Bar Harbor, Maine, to get his perspective on the challenges and options facing researchers whose work has been affected and what the future holds.
GEN: What are the challenges for researchers to get back to where they were before either having their research paused or redirected?
Taft: Animal facilities are considered an essential function, yet in some instances, due to social distancing, animal colonies were downsized. That was ethically correct and the responsible thing to do. As a result, researchers may have challenges in attaining the
animal cohorts they need to resume research.
GEN: What are the options available for researchers in those circumstances?
Taft: Purchasing cohorts is an option. If the strains are not readily available, in vitro fertilization (IVF) can be used to rapidly expand colonies. For example, the K18-hACE2 transgenic mouse, which may be a useful COVID-19 model, was donated to JAX as frozen sperm. Using IVF, we are rapidly expanding the colony and, by June, can provide large cohorts. Other assisted reproduction technologies can also be used to rapidly rebuild colonies.
JAX routinely plans colony sizing to satisfy the needs of the scientific community. The current unknowns make this process quite challenging, and a dialogue is needed about researchers’ needs and potential timing. About 80% of our uncommon inbred strains are cryopreserved and produced on demand, which is a three-month process. If we know in advance, we can organize the workflow and breed and even hold the animals to move research projects forward.
GEN: As labs get back up running, how does this fit into the 3Rs?
Taft: Interest in cryopreservation is increasing. This is important both from a risk management and a 3R perspective, especially if the strain is not being actively used. In addition, no matter how well researchers manage their breeding there is likely still some inefficiency. It is hard to have all the animals born at the same time to get the needed groups. Overall, the more attention you pay to your inventory needs and plan future experiments, the better the management. Hopefully, these times lead to better practices implemented within the research community.
GEN: What does the future look like for research, post-COVID-19?
Taft: Researchers need to think about making their research more resilient, to protect their animal resources, and to have plans and systems in place if there is a disruption. There are multiple ways to accomplish the same objective; adverse events can be the spark that causes us to adapt. Make your core activities resilient and find other ways to accomplish non-core activities, such as animal breeding, through outsourcing, cryopreservation, and IVF. You could also consider working together with the scientific community institution-wide and sharing resources to reduce animal use. Optionally, JAX can provide tissues and/or data. No one knows what research looks like post-COVID-19, but ingenuity and creativity can put us in a better place.
Now is a good time to donate strains to repositories. At no cost, the strain is cryopreserved, and it is available in perpetuity, eliminating multiple generations of the same strain. Publicly available strains are easy to find, which increases usage while reducing cost, thereby helping research move along faster.
GEN: What is the most important thing a researcher can do to prepare for unforeseen circumstances?
Taft: As an individual, your research comes to a halt if you are out of the lab with no plan. Research labs need to think about developing explicit contingency plans in a format that can be communicated. Plans should include an accurate inventory of animal models and cryopreservation for unique strains that are difficult to reacquire.
Learn more about maintaining research continuity with JAX jax.org/research-continuity