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Department of Biosciences

News and Events

Formation of human tissue to improve drug testing and reduce animal research

(19 January 2018)

Innovative three dimensional (3D) cell culture technology is giving scientists the ability to grow realistic human tissues for more effective drug testing while reducing the need for animal research.

Alvetex, developed at Durham University’s Department of Biosciences, is a highly porous polystyrene scaffold designed to support 3D growth of human tissues from cells cultured in the laboratory – such as skin and intestinal tissue - that closely resemble those found in the body.

In tests, these tissues provide a more realistic subject and often yield more accurate predictive results than existing two dimensional (2D) models in conventional Petri dishes.

Developing human tissue models

Alvetex was first commercialised by Durham University spin-out company Reinnervate based at NetPark in County Durham, UK.

Bought by Japanese firm REPROCELL in 2014, and renamed REPROCELL Europe Ltd following its merger with human tissue specialist Biopta, the company has recently opened its new European headquarters in Glasgow, UK, in addition to the NetPark facility.

Current projects using the Alvetex technology include:

  • Developing human skin models to understand the effects of environmental conditions on human skin, in partnership with Procter & Gamble;

 

  • Work with the European Collection of Authenticated Cell Cultures (ECACC), part of Public Health England, to explore how its cell culture collection can be grown in 3D to produce human tissue models. Such work will help overcome some of the limitations current cell lines experience in conventional 2D culture methods, hence increasing the value of existing cell lines and advancing the research and discovery process.

 

  • Research within Durham’s Department of Biosciences, in part sponsored by the National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement & Reduction of Animals in Research (NC3Rs), aims to engineer a 3D human intestine model to assess how drugs are transported and absorbed in the gut. The structure of the human intestinal wall can be reproduced in vitro using Alvetex technology. Current research continues to develop this tissue model to include immune cells in an attempt to simulate inflammatory responses observed in Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), thus enabling the study of this debilitating disease in people.

Past projects include the use of Alvetex technology, developed using funding from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, aboard the International Space Station to investigate bone loss during bed rest, in microgravity or through diseases such as osteoporosis.

Reducing numbers of animals in research

Professor Stefan Przyborski, in Durham University’s Department of Biosciences, led the academic research and founded the business upon which Alvetex was commercialised. He is the driving force in the development of novel human tissue models to advance discovery and reduce animal usage.

Professor Przyborski, who is also REPROCELL Europe Ltd’s Chief Scientific Officer, said: “The ability to grow cells in three-dimensions stemmed from basic research in our research labs at Durham University.

“We have since adapted that technology to be able to grow human tissues in-vitro in the lab, which has tremendous potential benefits for future research.

“By modelling the anatomy of human tissue, which can be manipulated to simulate certain disease types, we can more effectively study the effects that drugs or other chemicals might have on these tissues.

“This also has benefits for reducing the numbers of animals used in research, as scientists are able to carry out research on more realistic human tissue models.”

Mimicking human tissues

Professor Przyborski is a member of the Board of Directors of the NC3Rs. He is also the President of the Anatomical Society, which promotes the principle that “structure is related to function”. This is important in the understanding and development of advanced in vitro models that are designed to mimic real human tissues.

Professor Przyborski has also recently authored a book, Technology Platforms for 3D Cell Culture: A User’s Guide, which points to the options available to perform 3D culture, shows where such technology is available, explains how it works, and reveals how it can be used by scientists working in their own labs. The front cover of the text depicts the structure of a tissue model of human skin, revealing almost identical anatomical structure to that of the real human epidermis.

Professor Przyborski also participates in the organisation of national and international conferences on 3D cell culture technologies where he presents the most recent findings of his research group on human 3D tissue models.

In addition, Professor Przyborski is heavily involved in leading training courses in cell culture technology in collaboration with Public Health England.