Take a kidney printed by a 3D-printer, or a scientific research platform or even a swing in a mouse cage: Charité 3R presented about 20 funded projects at its online symposium on February 24th to offer a perspective on its achievements two years after it was established. Each project had its own characteristic approach towards the overarching principles of 3R: replace – reduce – refine. The symposium gave away a poster award and three first prizes.
It is a mark of distinction for an academic institution to establish a scientific centre specifically geared towards a strengthening of the 3R principle. Charité 3R can now look back on two years of networking, on 33 funded projects and on a range of publications in scientific journals.
Reason enough, therefore, to present the work to a wider audience in more detail. Charité dean Prof. Axel Radlach Pries explained in his welcoming address before 200 participants that it wasn’t about banning all animal testing from biomedical research. This is a distant goal at the end of a long path, he said. He then went on to explain that „everyone who is doing research with test animals is obliged to energetically look for alternatives and do everything in one’s power to reduce animal suffering.“
Closing funding gaps, expanding networks
Charité 3R heeds this call with various funding lines. The presentations at the symposium focused on these three funding lines: refinement, adding 3R value and 3R technology platforms. While refinement looks at the improvement of living conditions for laboratory animals via the reduction of stress and pain or more species-appropriate husbandry, the sponsoring line adding 3R value aims at expanding already existing third-party-funded research projects to include a 3R aspect. The third line supports technology platforms within the Charité community, which can be used to reduce or replace animal experiments.
„It is our goal to promote projects with 3R potential and to close funding gaps in the implementation of 3R principles,“ says Charité spokesperson Prof. Stefan Hippenstiel, explaining the funding activities of Charité 3R. „Of course this takes some money,but we are creating networking structures to share know-how and infrastructure with as many research groups as possible.“
Human lung cells replacing the mouse model
Take infection research, for example: Charité researchers increasingly use lung models to study pneumonia or the pathology of viral diseases. The tissue samples come from patients who have undergone surgery and thus represent the human lung in great detail. Charité doctoral student Morris Baumgardt uses ex vivo lung cultures and lung organoids (mini-lungs grown from human cell material) to test various antiviral substances against influenza, and also substances against SARS-COV-2, more recently. In his presentation, the infectious disease researcher noted that „both models feature various cell types, which can easily be infected with influenza type A or covid and are thus very well suited for drug testing.“ By direct comparison, organoids show some advantages over lung tissue, he reported. The cultured mini-organs have a longer shelf-life, are less dependent on outside tissue material and allow for deeper analysis, he said. In the long run, Baumgardt envisions a biobank for personalized applications in therapy. His work shows in great detail, how important current questions in medical research can be answered without the mouse model.
Utilizing data, avoiding animal testing
A little less abstract, but not less focused on 3R is the project of the „CAMARADES“-initiative, the platform for online review. The „Collaborative Approach to Meta-Analysis and Review of Animal Data from Experimental Studies“ docks onto the QUEST centre of the Berlin Institute of Health (BIH) and is committed to improving the quality of biomedical research. The basic idea is that better research proves beneficial for both humans and animals. The initiative supports scientists in the research of data from animal studies and to produce survey studies and summary analyses of multiple studies. It also provides insight on how to spot well-made studies and how to improve studies, if necessary. „Good research is characterized by the experiment being robust, translatable to humans and of scientific utility,“ explains Sarah McCann of CAMARADES. This also means that researchers should get an overview of what data from animal studies are already available or what non-animal methods might be better suited to the question at hand. „Ultimately, good research helps to avoid a lot of unnessary animal testing and thus alleviates animal suffering,“ she said. „And our work looks to support that.“
Enhanced well-being, less stress for animals
Dr. Annemarie Lang of the Department of Rheumatology and Clinical Immunology approaches animal welfare in a different way. She wants to improve the wellbeing of mice used in animal experiments. Her focus is the effective pain management in mice used for bone research. During and post-surgery, the animals usually receive pain medication - most often buphrenorphine - which needs to be applied every six hours. These frequent injections put the animals under a lot of stress. Annemarie Lang’s research aims to provide evidence for gentler options. In a current study conducted with a research team from Basel, she is testing a newly developed depot injection which has been previously shown to be just as effective. „The sustained-release drug provides the analgesic agent evenly over a 72-hour period, thus sparing the animals unnecessary stress,“ she reported. „This should be definitively the method of choice in the future.“ However, there are no sustained-release drugs on the European market yet. Due to the great demand, the researchers have entered into discussions with potential partners to produce the depot injections in Berlin. Last but not least the veterinarian reminded the audience to diversify the rodents‘ cage environment through the use of e.g. suitable nesting material, swings or hiding places. She considers the so-called tunnel handling as optimal methods to work with rodents and handle mice during the experiments. Scientific studies have proven „that his handling is much less stressful for the animals.“ And have therefore demonstrated that even small alterations in laboratory procedures can greatly enhance the animals‘ well-being.
Annemarie Lang, Sarah McCann and Morris Baumgardt were three of the six speakers, who presented their 3R project live on February 24th. 16 further projects were presented via poster with five videos among them. Faced with this embarassment of riches, the scientific advisory board was hard-pressed at the end of the day to select the best PDF poster and the best video. „We have seen impressive projects and the choice was certainly not an easy one to make,“ said board member Prof. Peter Kunzmann from Hannover. Tom Bengtsen from Denmark added that „eventually there can only be one winner, such are the rules of the game.“ They both announced the winner of the poster award. A further prize was awarded after selection by the audience.
After four hours of the symposium, there was a meet & greet session at the end, where participants could meet at virtual tables and exchange ideas about the symposium and other topics. The only thing everyone had to provide for themselves was a suitable drink at their desk at home.
(Text: Beatrice Hamberger)
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