Jan 18, 2016
Berlin’s first university professorship dedicated to research on alternatives to animal testing is being established at Freie Universität Berlin. The goal is to develop disease models based on human tissue cells and human organs reconstructed from those cells.
These models could be used in fundamental and pharmaceutical research to test things like the efficacy of drugs or the effects of environmental toxins on the human organism. The Berlin Senate Department for Justice and Consumer Protection is funding the new professorship with 400,000 euros in start-up financing. The position is slated to be filled in 2016. Preparations for the appointment procedure are under way.
Studies of cell cultures and computer simulations of cellular processes already supplement or even replace animal testing in many areas of toxicology research. Right now, about 46 percent of all lab animals – most of them mice and rats – are used in fundamental research, and another 18 percent are used for pharmaceutical development. Many of these animals have been genetically modified with a human gene that triggers a certain disease, or a gene in their own genetic makeup has been deactivated in order to cause illness.
Genetic changes and pathological defects due to environmental influences can also be generated or simulated using isolated human cells, however. Various tissue types and organs can then be reconstructed in the cell culture based on these cells. The professorship established by the State of Berlin aims to promote the development of these kinds of pathology models – based on reconstructed human organs – and to help reduce the number of animal tests that are performed.
The professorship is embedded in the Berlin-Brandenburg research platform BB3R. The “3R” part stands for “reduction, refinement, and replacement”; this encompasses research performed with the aim of reducing or refining animal testing or even replacing it altogether. The organization’s aim is to pool together regional expertise in these fields, advance systematic research on substitute methods, establish these methods in the research sector, and train junior scientists and researchers on the use of alternative testing methods and working techniques that are gentler to animals. With all this in mind, there is also a research training group associated with the organization.
The new professorship will not only advance the organization’s scientific work, but also expand the range of courses open to doctoral candidates, thereby ensuring that junior scientists are trained in the area of research that is gentler to animals, said pharmacologist Dr. Monika Schäfer-Korting, the executive vice president of Freie Universität Berlin, who is a professor and the spokesperson for BB3R. “The State of Berlin is thus strengthening the sustainability of this research field, which is crucial to Berlin,” she added.
The professorship is being financed by the Berlin Senate Department for Justice and Consumer Protection, which is also responsible for matters of animal welfare in Berlin. “The coalition agreement says that we will devote our efforts to reducing animal testing. We are now living up to this mission – in the truest sense of the word,” said Senator Thomas Heilmann. “To be able to reduce animal testing, we need more research on the alternatives. That’s why the new professorship is so important. My special thanks go out to Representatives Alexander Herrmann and Daniel Buchholz for their active support; without them, we would not have been able to provide the money. And I would like to thank the Berlin State Animal Welfare Officer, Professor Horst Spielmann, who has been a vocal proponent of this professorship since taking up his office and before then as well,” Heilmann continued.
Sandra Scheeres, the Berlin Senator for Education, Youth and Science, said, “With this professorship, we are strengthening this important research field. Every animal test that can be prevented must be prevented. That is an urgent ethical requirement. I believe that this field of research must be expanded in Germany. Doing that will require the initiative of everyone involved in research, both within and outside university settings, and everyone in the healthcare sector.”
The most important replacement methods for animal testing so far include disease models made from reconstructed human skin tissue, which have been developed by researchers at Freie Universität Berlin under the leadership of Dr. Monika Schäfer-Korting, a professor and pharmacologist. To create these models, human skin cells are first multiplied heavily in a cell culture and then built into a group of cells using special methods. On contact with the air, this group of cells forms a horny layer that is similar to the surface of human skin.
This skin tissue can be used to test things such as whether a substance destroys or irritates the skin, whether it is toxic when combined with ultraviolet radiation, whether it damages the DNA, or whether it triggers an allergic reaction. Researchers also study whether foreign substances penetrate into the body via the skin, and if so, to what extent and how they are metabolized in the skin.
By deactivating a specific gene and deliberately causing inflammation, researchers have also succeeded in developing a model of a genetic defect that can trigger neurodermatitis or psoriasis. In addition, they have developed a disease model for a certain type of skin cancer in the lab using reconstructed skin.
Because the skin models are “built” using cells from different human donors, they also reflect human genetic diversity, so they make it possible to draw conclusions about how broad the effects of a certain pharmaceutical substance that is being tested are. This makes it possible for researchers to identify the best substances early on in the pharmaceutical development process, excluding less promising ones from further testing, especially animal trials.
The Berlin-Brandenburg research platform “BB3R” has been financed using funding from the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) since April 2014. The organization’s goal is to reduce or refine animal testing or even eliminate it from research altogether.
The participants in the research platform include not only Freie Universität Berlin, but also Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin, Technische Universität Berlin, and the University of Potsdam. The German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) is also involved, as is the Zuse Institute Berlin.
The research training group “Innovations in 3R Research” is also embedded into the organization. The group gives doctoral candidates a chance to obtain a systematic and comprehensive education in the field of research that is gentler to animals and do their own scientific work on the subject as part of their doctoral studies. The German federal funding is being used to support twelve positions for doctoral candidates and three junior professorships, one each at Freie Universität Berlin, the University of Potsdam, and Charité.
The work done by the researchers at BB3R has already garnered multiple awards. Back in 2013 Dr. Günther Weindl, a junior professor at Freie Universität, received an award from the state of Berlin for promoting research on replacement and supplementary methods for animal testing. Dr. Christa Thöne-Reineke, a professor of veterinary medicine, received a similar award for alternative methods in teaching and education in October 2015. The award was given in recognition of the concept behind the lecture series titled “Alternatives to Animal Testing in Research, Education, and Teaching,” which Thöne-Reineke had developed together with Dr. Vivian Kral and fellow professor Dr. Monika Schäfer-Korting.