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Striving to help scientists move away from using animal derived biomaterials in research

Published on January 9, 2023

Celia Rodriguez, is working towards her doctorate with Professor Valerie Speirs, at the University of Aberdeen. She’s developing a humanised ‘on-a-chip’ system to predict the likelihood of different types of breast cancer spreading. This would provide doctors a window to eliminate the disease early, before it invades other tissues and organs and could improve the outlook for many breast cancer patients. Celia recently presented a scientific poster illustrating some of her research progress in growing breast cells in animal free conditions at The British Association for Cancer Research 60th Anniversary Conference.

Even though the advanced tissue culture methods (growing cells in dishes in the lab) don’t involve living, breathing animals in cages, they do often involve the use of so-called animal derived biomaterials. Foetal bovine serum (FBS), extracted from unborn calves in slaughterhouses is currently the gold standard used for growing cells in the lab. For a long time, more humane alternatives, where they did exist, were hard to find and expensive. On top of that, researchers were reluctant to change the tissue culture conditions that they had always used with apparent success. Animal-component free alternatives are now commercially available, but scientists need to validate these alternatives, and make sure cells also grow well in animal-free cultures.

Celia compared some of these alternatives to FBS to assess how well they supported healthy and cancerous breast cell growth, movement, and survival. FBS enabled good cell growth as expected. She found that human serum (blood with cells and clotting factors removed) is a suitable FBS-replacement for growing both breast epithelial cells (cells that lie breast tissue) and breast cancer cells. She also determined the optimal amount of human serum for breast cell growth. However, an animal-free product called GroPro damaged these cells and failed to support cell growth. She’s continuing this work by testing other commercial animal-free growth supplements in the same way.

The left-hand image, taken using a microscope, shows breast cancer epithelial cells growing well in foetal bovine serum – the gold standard animal derived biomaterial used for growing cells in the lab. The middle image shows the same cells grown with human serum. They keep their shape, indicating that they also grow well in human serum. The right-hand image shows these breast cancer cells have become larger and more irregular, indicating that exposure to GroPro (an FBS-replacement) has damaged the cells, so is not a suitable alternative.

Animal Free Research UK has long taken a strong stance on the use of animal derived biomaterials, prohibiting their use in the research we fund. We strive not only to help scientists move away from using animals in their experiments, but also to ensure that their research methods and materials are animal free and thus more human relevant.

You can read more about Celia’s project HERE >>



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