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Meet the 2023 Innovation Grant scheme winners

We’ve run the Innovation Grant scheme since 2021 to address the gap in small funding pots for proof of principle research. This scheme empowers scientists to push science forward with novel human-focused research.

This year, we’re funding three diverse projects from across the UK that will help replace animals in the lab and provide better healthcare for humans who need it.

A humanised model of Sarcopenia to replace animal-derived products

Dr Livia Rocha dos Santos from Nottingham Trent University is awarded £4,500 for the project ‘A high-throughput human muscle model for sarcopenia research’

Sarcopenia is an age-related disease affecting muscle mass and strength, which affects 5.3% of the UK population making them two to three times more likely to develop physical disabilities. Although patients are prescribed lifestyle changes, like exercise and a high-protein diet, many don’t respond or are unable to adhere because they’re too frail or bedridden. Sarcopenia is currently estimated to cost the NHS over £2.5 billion/year and other treatments are sorely needed.

In this project, Livia and her team are developing high-throughput human muscle models which are essential to the development of new therapeutics. They’ve invented a system to allow the generation of tissue-engineered muscle in suspension – a mini-muscle that looks and contracts like a native muscle – in a system that provides developmental-like cues and enables nutrient and gas exchange. Their technology allows them to generate up to 10 times more tissues than other available methods but it was originally developed using cells from mice. The team will be making the system 100% animal-free by using human cells and animal-free reagents.

They hope not only to accelerate the discovery of new therapies for sarcopenia patients but also to provide proof of concept for the development of tissue models emulating other conditions like diabetes and heart disease.

Novel Chronic Wound Model to replace animal ‘models’

Dr Sarah Maddocks from Cardiff Metropolitan University is awarded £14,500 for the project ‘Developing a realistic animal-free chronic wound infection model.’

Chronic wounds are different from the short-lived acute wounds that we all get as they fail to heal within three-months and consequently become infected. Antimicrobial treatments often struggle to promote healing in chronic wounds as they have biofilms of multi-species bacterial communities within them surrounded by a complex slime layer. This slime layer acts like a shield, protecting the bacteria from the immune system. Despite an estimated 2.8 million people in the UK living with a chronic wound at any one time, it is a neglected area of research.

The failure of antimicrobials to treat chronic wounds is partly due to the biofilms and slime but is also down to laboratory testing methods. Many tests use simple models bearing no resemblance to a real wound, meaning promising results do not translate into clinical success. To circumvent this, animal models are often used instead. Sarah’s team have developed a 3D-printed, laboratory-based chronic wound infection model that does not use animals or animal-derived tissues. It closely mimics the human wound environment to allow realistic biofilm growth.

In this project, they will incorporate human wound-like skin cells into their chronic wound biofilm model and modify the simulated wound fluid recipe to be animal-free.

New Model of Obesity to replace diet-induced animal ‘models’

Dr Nicola Contessi Negrini from Imperial College London is awarded £7,000 for the project ‘A 3D non-animal biomimetic in vitro construct to replace diet-induced obese animal models’.

Within the UK alone, 1 in 4 adults and 1 in 5 children live with obesity – an excess of adipose tissue – which can lead to severe health conditions like diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and certain cancers. Obesity heavily affects quality of life, is now the 5th leading cause of death, and the World Health Organisation has declared it global epidemic.

In obese patients, adipose tissue undergoes chronic inflammation associated with reduced oxygen supply and increased stiffness, impairing its metabolic functions, and contributing to development of other diseases. Understanding the link between adipose tissue and metabolic complications is critical to developing therapeutics but current approaches rely on animal ‘models’ and 2D cell culture to replicate human obesity. 2D in vitro models are a potential non-animal alternative but they do not represent the complexity of human 3D adipose tissue structure and are hampered by technical challenges like mature adipocytes failing to attach to plastic surfaces.

Nicola is developing a non-animal, human-based, biomimetic 3D in vitro model of obese adipose tissue to enable pathophysiology research and drug and toxicity screening. They are developing plant-derived biocompatible soft materials (hydrogels) and designing their properties to mimic obese adipose tissue. Human cells will be cultured into the hydrogels with a medium mimicking the obese inflammatory environment. They will then compare their model to fresh human adipose tissue from obese patients for insulin resistance and inflammation.

This interdisciplinary approach will help replace diet-induced animal models in basic and translational research, to investigate obesity physiopathology and develop future treatments.

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