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Experts showcase their work on growing human cells in 3D to advance progress in treating disease

Published on May 19, 2023

STEMCELL Technologies (a global biotechnology company) recently re-ignited their hugely popular and dynamic Lunch & Learn Events, following a COVID-hiatus. With attendees from biotechnology companies, research institutions and charities, this was a half-day event where scientists from all across the globe had the opportunity to hear about the latest research into developing human-focussed technologies to tackle disease. It brought like-minded people together to share ideas, build new networks and, enjoy a delicious lunch to boot! This session focussed on our bodies’ responses to pathogens (organisms that cause disease) which due to its complexity, is much more effectively tackled using human-focussed tools and methods. Here are some of the highlights…

Following an introduction from Julia Coghlan of STEMCELL Technologies, Professor Róisín M. Owens, from the University of Cambridge, kicked off proceedings with a talk about her work on developing tools to study how the ‘gut-brain axis’ (the communication channel from the gut to the brain) influences disease. She referenced the amount media-interest there has been linking an unhealthy microbiome (the collection of microorganisms, mainly bacteria, that naturally live on and in our bodies) with conditions such as anxiety, depression, cancer, Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s diseases, to name but a few.

Professor Owens discussed how animals are a reductive way of studying the complex microbiome – for example, mice can be genetically engineered to be ‘germ-free’ and bacteria subsequently introduced, but this is an inaccurate re-creation of the human microbiome. Professor Owens went on to say that the recently passed FDA Modernisation Act 2.0 in the US, a bill authorising the use of certain alternatives to animal testing, is a call to action for people in this field to develop in vitro (lab) models. She then showcased her work in harnessing the power of bioengineering, whereby electronics are combined with materials mimicking human tissues within the gut-brain axis, creating an effective human-focussed tool to study it.

Dr Adithya Sridhar at Amsterdam UMC (a leading medical centre) is developing a number of different 3D human organ models (known as organoids) along the gut-brain axis. He’s studying a number of viruses and discussed how he’s using a human airway model to help find new ways to tackle Parechovirus, a globally prevalent virus from the Polio family, which is particularly dangerous to children under 3 months old. Dr Sridhar is trying to determine why one particular type of Parechovirus is more dangerous than another and how it crosses the blood-brain barrier.

Dr Valeria Lulla, from the University of Cambridge followed on from this with an intriguing talk on enteric viruses, which commonly cause gastroenteritis (stomach-flu). Her work focuses on deciphering the molecular ‘tools’, (including extra proteins in their genetic makeup) which enable these viruses to enter our bodies via the gut, and then subsequently reach the central nervous system where they can cause further damage.

Dr. Salvatore Simmini from STEMCELL Technologies concluded this fantastic event by sharing his progress in developing a 3D lung model. He talked about the obstacles faced in developing a scalable and more physiological (realistic) 3D model, as well as the various design iterations needed to ensure it’s robust, reliable and predictive.

One of the challenges that lies ahead is in achieving these outcomes so that human-focussed tools can be validated, and regulations and policies can be updated. This would lead to human-focussed models becoming incorporated into the pipeline of pre-clinical trials (the safety tests that precede human clinical trials), thereby replacing the need for animals in this process.

Dr Stephanie Modi from the Science Team at Animal Free Research UK, who attended this event said: “These talks generated a myriad of questions from the audience, keen to learn more about the work of these experts and how they could apply it to their own fields. It was inspiring to meet so many scientists keen on developing human-focused methods and see the cultural shift towards them in action

At Animal Free Research UK, we’re excited that more and more scientists are responding to the call to action and transitioning from using animals to using human-focussed technologies. This will ultimately lead to more effective research for the good of both patients and animals.


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