Super sorter Dr Karen Pilkington

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Super sorter Dr Karen Pilkington

Super sorter Dr Karen Pilkington

Super sorter Dr Karen Pilkington wants to assess whether human in vitro brain tumour methods can be used to replace animal research.

There is nothing I find more satisfying than opening a packet of jelly beans and organising them into categories before eating them. I like to sort my jelly beans by colour and then by my favourite flavour before munching down on my colourful collection.

I sort jelly beans for a bit of fun. But what if I could use my thorough collect and sort method to prove that human in vitro methods can be used to replace animal research?

Dr Karen Pilkington is doing just this, by stepping forward to sort the jelly beans of in vitro brain tumour research.

petri dish in vitro researchIn vitro research takes place in a controlled environment, outside of a living organism (such as an animal or plant). In vitro (Latin for ‘in glass’) experiments are traditionally undertaken in test tubes, petri dishes or flasks. They usually involve isolated cells, tissues, or organs.

In contrast, in vivo (Latin for ‘within the living’) experiments are conducted inside a living organism.

How will this research help validate animal free research methods?

We need a large amount of evidence to prove that human in vitro methods can be used to replace the use of animals in research.

We can put together a clear body of evidence by finding all of the in vitro studies that have been conducted in one research area, sorting them by relevance, assessing their quality and, if appropriate, combining their results. The process of doing this is called a systematic review. Systematic reviews provide stronger evidence than single studies alone.

It’s a bit like me trying to prove that green jelly beans are better than green skittles by collecting the world’s supply of jelly beans, sorting them by colour and then the green beans by the best flavour.

However, my favourite jelly bean flavour might not be someone else’s, so assessing the quality of green jelly beans by flavour might not be the best method. In the same way, the criteria used to assess the quality of the human in vitro studies that could replace animal studies also need to be established.

After collating all of the published human in vitro brain tumour research, Dr Pilkington will determine quality criteria by interviewing leading and emerging researchers, journal editors and analysing other systematic review papers.

She and her team will then make recommendations on how the studies could be combined in a series of systematic reviews to answer specific questions about brain tumours, including those currently addressed by the use of animal studies.

What is the impact of this research?

The results of her rigorous and comprehensive review will reveal the whole picture of the current human in vitro brain tumour research knowledge. The results can then be used to assess the potential for human in vitro research studies to replace in vivo (animal) studies.

It will also identify any gaps in the knowledge for future scientific investigation and help inform non-specialists about human-relevant in vitro brain tumour research.

Furthermore, undertaking this research project will additionally pave the way for providing strong evidence that human in vitro methods can replace animal research in other scientific areas.

Are there any other benefits?

The systematic process of comprehensively reviewing research in a specific area can also reveal:

  • Poor research practices (inedible jelly beans);
  • Unreliable reporting of research (watermelon flavoured beans camouflaged as apple);
  • Unnecessary replication and duplication of research studies (finding too many of the same flavour in a packet).

If left undetected, these practices could result in costly, unethical research practice involving the unnecessary use of animals (or jelly bean taste-testers). Dr Pilkington’s work will prevent this from happening.

So the next time you open a packet of jelly beans, Skittles or other assorted sweets, spare a thought for super sorter Dr Pilkington and her goal to provide the evidence for replacing animal research with top quality, human-relevant in vitro techniques.

You can read more about the project over on the project page.


Our work is funded entirely by your generous support. Your donation helps to fund some of the most advanced and successful human-related techniques in many areas of medical research. We do not use animals.

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