Final Report: Dr Driton Vllasaliu – Developing an animal-free gut model to study gastrointestinal diseases

  • Dr Driton Vllasaliu aimed to develop a human-based cell model representing the intestine to study gastrointestinal (GI) diseases, replacing animal experiments.
  • Simplified mini versions of organs, known as organoids, are currently used in GI disease research but are limited in their use as the important internal (luminal) side, representing the inner part of the intestine, is inaccessible to researchers.
  • A 2D model of the intestine was developed using of a thin layer of luminal cells, allowing them to be easily accessed for use in experiments.
  • This 2D model could have a range of uses in drug development, safety testing, assessing nutritional absorption and many other research applications.
  • Initial tests of the model were completed, and future research will continue testing to understand how this technology can be used more widely.
  • This project is a significant advancement in this field and is an important step forward in the replacement of animal experiments in the field of GI disease research.
Dr Driton Vllasaliu Animal Free Research UK

Dr Driton Vllasaliu

The term ‘gastrointestinal (GI) diseases’ covers a wide range of conditions affecting all parts of the digestive system. These conditions affect millions of people worldwide, creating a significant burden on healthcare systems. This wide spectrum of GI diseases means that a large amount of research is performed to understand their development and generate treatments, with much of it currently conducted using animals including mice, rats, guinea pigs, zebrafish, rabbits, dogs, pigs and monkeys. These methods have limitations due differences in the anatomy, gene expression and immune system between animals and humans, and often include cruel surgical or stress-induced approaches.

To replace animals used in GI disease with human-focused methods, Dr Driton Vllasaliu at King’s College London, worked on developing organoids (simplified mini versions of human organs), which can be grown in the lab. Organoids are useful for understanding how cells behave, identifying changes that lead to disease and for testing new drugs and treatments. Additionally, organoids have a huge advantage over animal experimentation, as they can be developed from human or patient-derived cells that better reflect what happens in the patient’s body.

Using pilot funding from Animal Free Research UK, Dr Vllasaliu, developed an improved version of a human intestine organoid. The motivation for this research was one of the main limitations of gut organoids, relating to the structure of the intestine itself, which is shaped like a long tube. The inner wall of the intestine, known as the luminal side, is important for the absorption of food and drugs, but is also one of the main areas involved in disease development. Current intestinal wall models, are limited in their usefulness because they are grown as a 3D structure with the important luminal side cells facing inside, making these cells inaccessible to researchers.

Dr Vllasaliu developed a new way to grow the luminal intestine cells as a thin 2D layer, meaning the luminal cells are easily accessible for a range of research including drug development, drug safety testing and assessing nutritional absorption.

Initial testing of the model was completed, and future work will focus on further testing to understand how this technology can continue to be improved and used more widely. This work is a significant advancement in animal-free technology and represents an important step forward in the replacement of animal experiments in the field of GI disease research.


Pilot study grants Animal Free Research UK