The team has created lifelike models of human skin and 3D cell cultures of cancers to test treatments for disease without having to use live animals.
For instance, the standard model in cancer research is to grow tumour cells in a lab and implant into live mice. Working with the National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research – a UK-based scientific organisation dedicated to finding ways to reduce the use of animals in research and testing – the researchers have developed a 3D cell culture model to grow spheres of cells that mimic the environment in a human body. The cancer cells are studied in this structure, using a technique called mass spectrometry imaging.
An additional new method might help reduce animal use in personalised cancer medicine, where cancer cells from patients are implanted typically into 20 mice, which are treated with anti-tumour agents to test which agents would work in patients. The new cell culture method, called the OrganDot platform, potentially allows bypassing of the animal phase and was developed with BioIVT and funded by InnovateUK.
The researchers have also developed artificial lab-grown skin and a version that mimics psoriasis, a skin condition affecting around two per cent of adults in the UK. Working with Labskin (UK) Ltd, based in York, artificial diseased skin was grown in a lab and dermatological drugs applied to see how far they permeate through the skin, using mass spectrometry imaging. The technique means tests can be undertaken without the need to generate mouse models of psoriasis. The artificial skin can also be used to study wound healing and infection and also cosmetics, where animal studies are banned.
The Sheffield Hallam research team, which includes Dr Neil Cross, Professor Malcolm Clench, Professor Christine Le Maitre, Dr Laura Cole and Dr David Smith, is also working with The Humane Research Trust to develop completely non-animal methods of research – allowing vegan students to complete biomedical research without compromising their beliefs.
Dr Neil Cross, Reader in cancer biology at Sheffield Hallam University, said: “As a scientist, I have been involved in many studies where animals have been subsequently used to test new anti-tumour agents. Many of these studies did not show effects in the animal studies as the initial testing was performed on standard cell culture methods that do not represent the in vivo environment. We think that our 3D cell culture methods better predict which drugs will work in vivo, so if they do not work in our 3D cell culture method, they will not be progressed to the animal phases of testing, thus reducing unnecessary animal use.
“As well as a reduction in the number of lead compounds that make it to animal phases of study, 3D culture testing is cheaper than animal testing, so we’re making medical research funding more efficient too.
“We have started to offer the work from our projects as a commercial service, allowing pharmaceutical companies to carry out research using our techniques. This will improve our collective knowledge about the diseases that affect so many of us, whilst reducing the numbers of animals used in the process.”
In the UK in 2019, 3.4 million procedures were carried out involving live animals. Mice, fish and rats are the most common animals used, making up 93 per cent of tests.