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Q&A with 2013 winners: Katja Reinhard

Katja Reinhard won the Young Researcher Prize in 2013.  We caught up with her in 2014 to find out more about her work and her progress. 

Could you describe who you are and what you do?

I'm a PhD student in Dr. Thomas Münch laboratory, in Tübingen, Germany. Our lab is interested in the detailed functionality of the retina; the part of the eye which allows us to see. Contrary to popular belief, the retina is not a simple camera, but extracts existing information about colour, contrast, movement etc. from the visual world before sending this information to the brain. Our research is particularly concerned with the type of information that is extracted, how this information is extracted, and we would like to know more about the code via which the information is then sent to the brain.

One big goal in retina research is to restore vision in blind people. Important work to achieve this goal has been done in the field of biochemistry, as well as basic research with animal models. In recent years, many new possible approaches have been developed in this way to treat blindness. Eventually we would like to treat the human retina; it is thus important to further test and develop these approaches directly on human retinas.

Why were you nominated for the prize?

I have been nominated for the Lush prize because our lab started collaborating with a local eye clinic in order to receive human retina donations from patients and post-mortem cornea donors. Our goal was and is to use these retinas in the lab for testing new approaches to treat blindness. This firstly requires us to characterise functionality of the healthy human retina – as a baseline for comparisons with treated human retina – which I started researching for my PhD.

Why did you win the prize?

This might rather be a question to the jury! I believe that I won the prize because retina research is a field in which the "three R's" have been applied very little so far, at least to my knowledge. We are the only lab worldwide that is working on the functionality of the explanted human retina in-vitro (in the lab), and our methodological approach can be applied in basic research as well as in medical/pharmaceutical tests.

What difference has winning the prize made to your contribution to the goal of the ‘three R’s (Reduction, Refinement, Replacement)?

As a student of biology or similar fields, animal experimentation and its pros and cons is always a topic we need to think about. I have always been interested in how to reduce and refine animal experimentation and I was very intrigued when I heard about the possibility to work on a project with human retinas – working with the most interesting tissue AND replacing animal experiments at the same time! But winning the Lush prize made me again much more aware of the three R principles, and made me think more about my future directions and possibilities.

What did winning the Lush Prize mean to you?

It was a great honour to win the Lush prize. At the same time it represents the task to further push replacements for animal experimentation.

How will you continue in your field, to fight against animal testing?

I do not like the term "fighting against animal testing" very much. What I like about the Lush prize is that it is not just a way to "fight against animal tests", but it is a constructive contribution towards replacement. I believe that it is very important to find replacements for animal experiments wherever possible (especially in medical/pharmaceutical research) and I hope that I am able to further contribute to this in the future. On the other hand, there are questions – especially in basic research – which cannot be answered by other means than animal experiments. Thus, if we agree that we need and want basic research, we will not be able to replace all animal testing in the near future.

This is one reason why I think that people, especially students, should be informed much better about the three R principles. Certainly about possibilities how to replace animal tests, but also very importantly about how to reduce and refine animal experiments since these will often be the first or the only possible steps. As a PhD student I have not been teaching so far, but in upcoming teaching tasks the three Rs will be an important topic and I will aim to make science students much more aware of these issues. In summary, I hope to see my contribution in my own future projects, but also in future teaching tasks. 

I believe that it is very important to find replacements for animal experiments wherever possible (especially in medical/pharmaceutical research) and I hope that I am able to further contribute to this in the future.

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