Cancer research04.08.2022

Fewer animal experiments thanks to artificial models

How can methods and tools be developed to ensure that the number of animal experiments and the number of animals used in research are significantly reduced? A research team from the University of Fribourg is working together with ETH Zurich to investigate this question; they aim to develop 3D cell culture models that will help to reduce the need for mouse experiments. The project has received funding of around 716,000 Swiss francs as part of the Swiss National Science Foundation’s «Advancing 3R – Animals, Research and Society» programme.

Up until now it has been customary in cancer research to implant human tumour cells in mice in what are known as mouse xenograft models. These models are mainly used in personalized cancer therapy to investigate tumour development and medication effects. In the project «Replacement of xenograft mouse models by molecularly-defined 3D in vitro systems», Prof. Dr Jörn Dengjel (UniFr), Prof. Dr Mark Tibbitt (ETHZ) and their research teams aim to develop 3D cell culture models. This alternative would mean that experiments on mice could be greatly reduced in the future.

Investigating the nature of tumours
Xenografts are transplants in which the donor belongs to a different biological species than the recipient. In order to investigate the development of tumours and the effects of medication, human tumour cells are implanted into mouse xenograft models. Dengjel, Tibbitt and their teams are interested in the molecular and physical properties of xenograft tumours. To determine these properties, the researchers will use various measurement methods (proteomics, transcriptomics and biophysical measurements) in the first part of the project. Because skin is clinically very relevant and readily available, they will use it as a model organ.

As close as possible to the original
In the second part of the project, the researchers will use the collected data to develop in vitro 3D cell culture models that correspond as closely as possible to xenograft models in terms of their molecular structure and biophysical properties. In order to check their relevance and significance, the third part of the project will study the effects of genetic and pharmacological interventions on the development of cancer cells. Through a combination of modern measurement and analysis methods, the project will provide detailed insights into animal cancer models in order to subsequently reconstitute them in vitro.

Promising fundamental research
Through the development of artificial models, the number of animal experiments and the number of animals used in university and private-sector research can be greatly reduced. Because the researchers are dealing with ethical and social aspects of the use of animals in science in an innovative way, the National Research Programme «Advancing 3R – Animals, Research and Society» (NRP 79) has awarded the project funding of around 716,000 Swiss francs. In the spirit of the programme, the newly acquired data and findings are intended to provide a common basis for discussion between animal rights activists and animal experiment advocates and, in this way, promote social discourse.

Link to the SNSF press release