The idea of using new nanotechnology breakthroughs to reduce the use of animals in laboratories has caught the imagination of European researchers.
Nanotechnology is a broad field focused on the study of things of a very small scale, and scientists hope these tiniest of techniques might add to the arsenal of non-animal research methods.
This area has attracted huge interest in recent years and nanotechnologies have already been used in everything from ‘functional foods’ to high-tech sunscreen and odour-free socks (I’m not making this up!).
Sometimes breakthroughs in science come from surprising places: when physicists began probing the miniature world of nanotechnology in the 1980s, the implications for animal research were not on the agenda.
Now, decades later, the potential of nanoscience to deliver new non-animal tests is coming into view.
It seems there’s no end to the promise of these tiny technologies and several research groups have been exploring how medical research could benefit.
In recent weeks a couple of headlines have caught our eye which suggests this area could be gaining increased momentum.
Researchers at the Fraunhofer Research Institute in Munich have developed new ‘sensor nanoparticles’ which could be used instead of animal-based methods in some cases.
As this article explains, when scientists need to understand the impact of a particular substance on living cells they typically expose animals to the chemical in question. But Dr Jennifer Schmidt and colleagues believe similar results can be achieved by growing living human tissue in the lab and using this to test new substances.
Here comes the tiny bit: nanosensors are used to detect a molecule called ‘ATP’, which helps scientists decide whether a cell is healthy or not. So if the nanosensor can detect lots of ATP, this suggests that the substance which is being tested hasn’t done much damage to the cells. If ATP levels fall, the cell is no longer healthy.
With new medicines, often the aim is to improve patients’ health without causing any collateral damage to their healthy cells. But sometimes killing cells is the aim of the game: this kind of nanotechnology could be used to test whether new cancer medicines damage or kill tumour cells.
The beauty of nanotechnology is that these tiny particles are not poisonous and can easily pass through cells because they are so small, meaning nanosensors can tell us a lot about how healthy a cell is without causing damage.
Moving to the mainstream
Separately, Prof Claus Lehr’s team at the Helmholtz-Institute for Pharmaceutical Research Saarland (HIPS) hopes to use nanotechnology to improve drug delivery.
His work has earned him several awards given their scope for reducing the dependence on laboratory animals in drug development. Prof Lehr is exploring how cell lines could be used to create models of the gut, skin and lungs. In some instances this could mean fewer rodents are needed when researching medicines.
The group has created models of healthy and inflamed bowels which could help doctors to understand diseases like colitis and inflammatory bowel disease. By using nanotechnology to deliver drugs directly, Prof Lehr and his colleagues hope medicines can reduce the inflammation which causes patients discomfort but with fewer side effects than existing treatments.
These are just two examples – feel free to suggest others – but the point is that the use of nanotechnologies in achieving the 3Rs appears to be gaining momentum.
As Prof Lehr told us, when he began looking at this area several years ago there was little academic interest and even less funding available. Now, nanotechnology appears to be taking its place in the mainstream and may be one of several solutions which can be brought together to cut down on the use of laboratory animals.
What do you think? Could small science make a big difference?
Image: Fraunhofer EMFT