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How we’re working to reduce the use of animal testing in medical research

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18 January 2022

How we’re working to reduce the use of animal testing in medical research

Reader in Cancer Biology

REF 2021

This case study was included as part of the Research Excellence Framework for 2021:

Tuesday 18 December • Viewing time: 1 minute

Every year, vital research is carried out aimed at curing or alleviating the effects of diseases, from cancer to psoriasis. This research saves lives. But it can often cost animals their lives too.

In Great Britain 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% of tests, but other animals including dogs and monkeys are also used.

Here at Sheffield Hallam University, I have been working with Professor Malcolm Clench, Professor Chistine Le Maitre, Dr Laura Cole and Dr David Smith to find more humane ways of conducting medical research — ways that involve fewer live animals.

By creating lifelike models of human skin and 3D cell cultures, we can test treatments for disease without having to experiment on animals.

Creating lifelike cell cultures

In cancer research, the standard model is to grow tumour cells in a lab and implant them into live mice. Sometimes, the tumours are then passed between a series of mice in order to experiment with different treatments.

Working with the National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research (NC3Rs) — a UK-based scientific organisation dedicated to finding ways to reduce the use of animals in research and testing — we have been creating techniques to test on these tumour cells without having to implant them into live animals.

We have developed a 3D cell culture model, where we grow spheres of cells that mimic the environment in a human body. We can then study what happens to cancer cells in this structure, using a technique called mass spectrometry.

We use a very sensitive imaging instrument that allows us to look at small molecules found in cells (just like you could if you had an incredibly high-powered microscope), while also measuring their exact mass. Using this method allows us to look inside the 3D cell culture to identify different chemicals and work out the behaviour of the cells.

Helping the fight against cancer

These experiments help us create personalised care for cancer patients. Previously, we would implant tumour cells from a patient into 20 mice, treat each mouse differently, and then give the patient the treatment that worked best on the mice.

Using our 3D cell culture, we were able to replicate this research in the lab without using mice. Our results showed that in our structure the cells behaved as predicted — meaning that cancer drugs could be tested to provide the best possible treatment for each individual patient.

A model of human skin

A lot of biomedical research is about seeing what happens when different drugs are introduced to the human body. Another of our projects was a study on psoriasis, a skin condition affecting around 2% of adults in the UK. In order to test different treatments we developed a model of human skin.

Working with Labskin (UK) Ltd, a company based in York, artificial skin was grown in the laboratory and drugs applied to it. By cutting thin sections of the skin, we can use the mass spectrometer to see how far the drug permeates through the skin.

Our technique means we can test any dermatological drug without smearing it onto the back of a mouse, or generating psoriasis in a mouse. Instead of doing lots of experiments on mice, we can use the artificial skin to get an idea of what works and what doesn’t. The artificial skin can also be used to study wound healing and infection.

While animals may still be used at a later stage in the research, this extra lab stage means we use far less than before.

A future with less animal testing

As a scientist, I have been involved in many animal tests during my career. By the very nature of scientific experimentation, some of these tests were poor with no meaningful results. By testing on lab-grown cell cultures and artificial skin first, we can make sure that we only carry forward the most promising drug research into live animals.

As well as the reduction in harm to animals, 3D culture testing is cheaper than animal testing, so we’re making medical research funding more efficient too.

And we’re even working with humane research trusts to develop completely non-animal methods of research — something that allows our vegan students to complete biomedical research without compromising their beliefs.

We have started to offer the work from our projects as a commercial service, allowing the big pharmaceutical companies to carry out research using our techniques. This will improve our collective knowledge about the diseases that affect so many of us humans — while reducing the numbers of animals killed in the process.

Staff

Neil Cross

Dr Neil Cross

Reader in Cancer Biology

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Malcolm Clench

Professor Malcolm Clench

Professor of Mass Spectrometry, Head of the Biomolecular Sciences Research Centre

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Christine Le Maitre

Professor Christine Le Maitre

Professor of Cell Biology and Tissue Regeneration

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Laura Cole 207831

Dr Laura Cole

Lecturer in Biomedical Science

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David Smith

Dr David Smith

Reader in Biochemistry, Course Leader MSc Molecular and Cellular Biology and National Teaching Fellow

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REF 2021 Research Excellence Framework logo

About this project

Explore the people and organisations behind this research, and find related publications by the research team.

Research partners

Innovenn (UK) BioIVT

Related courses

Our teaching is informed by research. Browse undergraduate and postgraduate courses with links to this research project, topic or team.

Get in touch

Find key contacts for enquiries about funding, partnerships, collaborations and doctoral degrees.

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