Rita Struhkamp: ‘During this transition, working toward better science goes hand-in-hand with alternatives to animal studies’

‘Finding ways to link science and policy has played a role throughout my career. In the Transition Programme for Innovation without the use of animals (TPI), you can see that scientists and proponents of this transitional thinking are finding effective areas of common ground and truly listening to one another. For a long time, this was not the case. The people fighting to abolish animal studies stood across the picket lines from the scientists in the field. Things are different now, which is really inspiring.’

Rita Stuhkamp groot
Beeld: ZonMw

We are speaking with Rita Struhkamp, who has been Head of Fundamental Research at the Netherlands Organisation for Health Research and Development (ZonMw) for the past four and a half years. She has been involved with the TPI from the very beginning and represents ZonMw as a member of the core group.

‘ZonMw funds health research and promotes efforts to use the resulting knowledge to improve care and health in the Netherlands. I’m responsible for investments in fundamental research and talent development, such as the Innovational Research Incentives Scheme and the Open Competition. I also oversee programmes with a focus on the function of the scientific system itself, like replication studies and Open Science. My background is in health science; because I hold a PhD, I’m quite familiar with the scientific aspect. In the years since, I’ve gained a great deal of experience in policy and management. All of which is to say that ZonMw is a great fit for me,’ says Struhkamp.

Thinking in terms of connection

‘The twin goals of achieving animal-free innovation and reducing the use of animal studies within our programmes have been part of my portfolio from day one. At first, the focus was primarily on “learning to think in terms of connection” and working toward better science, while also decreasing the use of laboratory animals. Since the formal launch of the TPI network, efforts to that effect have gained real power. The TPI has taken some major strides in the recent period.

At ZonMw, we play a connecting role. Although we’ re not a scientific party or a policy department and we don’t draft legislation, we at ZonMw speak both of these “languages”. This has allowed us to take effective action, such as attaching specific conditions to the grant funding we provide. With regard to laboratory animals, we’ve drawn up certain standards that animal use must meet. We also listen very carefully to what is and isn’t possible in a given case. Our goal is to find solutions while at the same time maintaining forward momentum.’

Taking a critical stance

‘We’re among the parties that are taking a critical stance with regard to animal use,’ Struhkamp continues. ‘We believe that animal use must be made subject to strict conditions and are eager to take major steps toward the possibility of a world without laboratory animals.

I have a vivid memory of a TPI event during which attendees were asked to choose between two cards as a way of demonstrating their personal stance. One card meant you were principally opposed to the use of laboratory animals. Showing the other card meant that while you were not in favour of animal use, you recognised that at this time, certain questions can not yet be answered without conducting animal studies. To me, this is no easy choice. As it stands now, there are still some important questions affecting large groups of patients that science struggles to answer without animal use. Those answers are needed and at ZonMw, it’s our job to provide them.’

Prospects for the future

‘We’re still at the start of the transition, and transitions like this one take time. If you look at the transitional model, a development will often keep to a slow pace for some time before making a sudden leap forward. I think that’s the case here as well. We’re currently investing in innovation and are confident that the acceleration will occur later.

I definitely see potential for advancing our efforts in the current COVID-19 crisis, just as any crisis presents opportunities. During this crisis specifically, huge steps forward have been made and worlds are suddenly coming together. This is fascinating to me. ZonMw has been able to allocate funding for investments in developing models for COVID-19 research that don’t rely on animal studies. This has afforded a huge boost to research methods that do not involve animal use. At the same time, however, the reality of the situation is that animal studies are still being conducted in the search for a COVID-19 vaccine. Things are moving quickly, but it isn’t possible to make the transition everywhere at this time.’

Crisis presents opportunities

‘What we can do is demonstrate our ability to capitalise on opportunities. The results of research currently being conducted in connection with COVID-19 are being made available immediately. Everyone can read the results, whereas five years ago this was much less common. It’s vitally important that all research data be made freely available to all, rather than being published behind a pay wall in journals for only a small group of people. For its part, ZonMw requires and promotes the publication of all results obtained through animal studies. Even if a study has yielded no results, or only negative findings, sharing the data prevents unnecessary repetition.’

Struhkamp believes that the acceleration and connection can also be traced to the fact that digital access to conferences and events has become much more straightforward. ‘In the past, these events were often held at an international location and attended only by a select few. Now, however, there’s no need to travel – you can attend a conference online instead. I’m thinking of the TPI Helpathons, for example. This is a fantastic new approach that enables you to involve others – and incorporate their feedback – from the very start in order to resolve a given issue. In this way, different disciplines are brought together at an early stage, making it possible to achieve a solution faster. It’s a pressure-cooker approach, so to speak. Helpathons are fantastic and inspiring events.’

‘We’re taking a critical stance with regard to animal use.'