The Centre will train researchers to use these new methods from the start of their career
Animal Free Research UK has recognised a researcher at the University of Exeter as among the best in the country in developing and training researchers in an alternative approach to using animals in laboratory research.
Exeter’s new Animal Free Research UK Centre of Excellence (ARC 2.0) recognises a ground-breaking new approach developed by Professor Lorna Harries to explore repurposing of existing drugs for new indications in totally humanised cell culture systems to enable replacement of animals in laboratory health research.
The Centre will train researchers to use these new methods from the start of their career. It seeks to empower them to develop the techniques and take them forward.
Professor Lorna Harries, of the University of Exeter Medical School, is the ARC 2.0 centre lead. She, said working with human cells produced research that was more likely to be effective in humans. “A lot of findings that look promising in rats or mice just don’t translate to benefits in people,” she said. “Working in humanised cell systems isn’t an easy option currently – it takes months to get the right conditions where human cells will behave like they do in the body. Yet once you manage that, they respond much better. Through my laboratory, we now want to train a new generation of academics who are excited to develop these approaches and create a step change in reducing the use of animals in research.”
Currently, only about 1 in 1,000 new drugs tested in animals progresses to human testing, and of these, only 1 in 5 drugs is eventually approved. The odds of a drug tested by conventional channels actually ending up in clinical use is therefore less than 1 in 5000. Professor Harries’ lab is testing new uses for drugs that have passed safety requirements and are already available in the clinic for a different purpose in cell culture systems that use no animal products. This repurposing approach means they have already been found to be safe for human use, accelerating the potential to roll them out.
The career pathway accompanying the initiative will see postgraduates offered a post doctoral training opportunity, followed by an independent Fellowship. This progression route is designed to enable scientists to start their own laboratory, committed to replacing animals with human cell research.
Professor Neil Gow, Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Research and Impact at the University of Exeter, said: “It’s really exciting that this new Centre is looking at innovative ways of reducing the use of animals in research. This commitment is in line with our ethos, governance principles and the legal framework that we deploy that insists on the highest ethical standards in all of our research involving animals. This research conforms to, and is underpinned by, stringent home Office-approved licences and monitoring. We’re proud that we ensure and enforce the highest standards of animal care and welfare, and we’re committed to the principle of 3Rs – which is to replace, reduce or refine the use of animals in research wherever possible.
Carla Owen, Chief Executive of Animal Free Research UK, said the organisation was funding the initiative with £600,000 over nine years – and is expecting to invest more. “It’s really exciting – nobody has ever done anything like this before,” she said. “At the moment, animal research is still seen as the “gold standard” in health – we are seeking to change that for good. We want to show that animal free research is highly valuable because the outcomes are directly relevant in humans. We want to create a generation of researchers who would never have to use an animal, because human cell models are recognised as being more efficient.”
First PhD student board the ARC 2.0
Laura Bramwell is the first PhD student in the new innovative Animal Free Research UK Centre of Excellence (ARC). This programme allows her to create new models for health research that could help people live more healthily in later life.
Laura is investigating a range of drugs that are already widely used in the NHS and have therefore been through rigorous safety procedures. She is testing them on newly created human cell models to see if they could have benefits in treating other conditions than the condition they currently target. The use of approved drugs in human cell models means they do not have to go through animal testing. This approach means Laura’s findings are likely to better translate to benefits in people, and the known safety of the drugs will accelerate the process of making them available to treat patients.
Laura, from the University of Exeter Medical School, said: “I will be testing new uses for drugs that are already available to patients for specific purposes. We know these drugs are safe in humans, and if we find they can be used for a different purpose, it will mean they can benefit patients without the need for animal testing. It’s exciting and inspiring to be leading the way as part of a new generation, developing exciting new approaches to animal-free research.”
Laura is part of a new Fellowship Programme, funded by the charity Animal Free Research, for an Animal Free Research UK Centre of Excellence (ARC) in Exeter. The funded amount of £600,000 over nine years will enable Laura and other researchers in the programme to move away from animal testing in research.
Funding for Laura will allow her to investigate how repurposing drugs can help people have a healthier body for longer during their life. The future findings could have a potential impact on age-related diseases such as dementia and diabetes.
When investigating the repurposing of drugs, the results are much more applicable to humans when testing in human cell models as opposed to testing in animals. As a result, there is no need to use animals in this research process.
As the first to be enrolled in the new animal-free programme, Laura marks an exciting development in medical research and the move away from animal testing.