Professor Claus-Michael Lehr, a drug development scientist at the Helmholtz-Institute for Pharmaceutical Research Saarland (HIPS), believes new methods using cell culture instead of rats and mice will help deliver medicines more efficiently.
‘Delivery’ is the watchword. Not only could non-animal methods get some medicines from the lab bench to patients’ bedsides more quickly, they could also be used to target drugs directly to where it’s needed most.
Finding ways to deliver a drug to a particular part of the body can mean more effective therapies with fewer side effects. Think of how the new wave of chemotherapies can target cancerous tumours without killing as many healthy cells as older treatments did.
Cell lines of inquiry
These ideas are what inspired Prof Lehr to explore how cell lines could be used to create models of the gut, skin and lungs. If his team can understand how, for example, the intestine will respond to a potential new medication using cell models it will require fewer rats and mice in the early stages of research.
The German group is also interested in how medicines can be inhaled or given through a patch instead of injected. The potential treatments are themselves promising but it is Prof Lehr’s innovation in the area of non-animal research which had attracted most attention.
His group has created models of healthy and inflamed bowels which could deepen understanding of colitis and inflammatory bowel disease. Through cutting-edge nanotechnology, Prof Lehr is hoping to deliver treatments to the bowel to reduce inflammation without the side effects which are often seen when a drug is taken in tablet form.
Using human cells as part of this research could give a good idea of how effective a treatment will be, he says.
The Saarland group believes that by testing potential medicines and drug delivery systems on real human tissue grown in their lab they can learn more about how healthy and inflamed intestines will respond to the drug.
It will also help figure out whether pharmaceuticals can be transported across the lining of the gut. At present, this kind of work is typically done in live animals but Prof Lehr believes some of these animal testing methods could ultimately be replaced.
Prof Lehr has won prestigious awards in the German state of Rhineland-Palatine and, recently, a federal research prize for work aimed at “the restriction and replacement of animal experiments”.
So, why did he dedicate himself to non-animal research methods?
“My motivation is truly scientific – it’s not driven by ethical concerns. I want to study how molecules transport across biological barriers like the lungs and the intestine. At present, if scientists want to examine the intestine they use rat and mouse models but these are imperfect. I believe using human tissue can be more efficient. So it’s not just about ethics, it’s about speed and efficiency.”
As a PhD student Prof Lehr’s work included performing surgery on rats and he sees the value of animal research in certain circumstances. “I think animal tests are still necessary in some instances, but in other cases we can get a clearer view if we use in vitro methods.”
Prof Lehr trained as a pharmacist in Germany before completing his PhD in the Netherlands and pursuing post-doctoral research in the US. He has been publishing academic papers for 20 years but has seen non-animal models for drug delivery research moving into the mainstream over time.
Academic interest and funding for the area has increased, slowly but surely, and new regulations have stimulated industry to invest.
“The ban on animal research for new cosmetics had a tremendous impact. It has been a driver for new research to find alternatives to animal testing and to validate them. There are quite a few miles to walk but it’s an expanding area,” he says.
Prof Lehr sees little prospect of a ban on the use of animals in drug development so the impetus will come from scientists and the pharmaceutical industry. “If it is accepted that cell lines can give better and faster results it will be a positive motivator,” he explains.
This may take time but with every research paper – and every prize – the Saarland group edges ever closer to this goal.
Photo credit: SCIEPRO/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY