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FRAME Summer Studentship Programme 2020 projects

With the 2021 FRAME Summer Studentship Programme currently open for applications, FRAME Scientific Liaison Officer Amy Beale reflects on the 2020 projects and shares their outcomes.

The FRAME Summer Studentship Programme is an annual initiative that offers small grants to undergraduate students to allow them to carry out a summer research project. The students work within their university under the guidance of a supervisor and at the end of the project produce a scientific report to summarise their findings. The projects are judged not only on their potential to impact the reduction or replacement of laboratory animals, but also on the quality of the application and the feasibility of the project.

Applications are currently open for the 2021 Summer Studentship awards and you can read more here.

We are proud that our Summer Studentship Programme provides opportunities for the winners to gain experience in planning, conducting and communicating a research project – both key skills for future researchers. The best projects also have the potential to inform or impact current animal research practices, regulations, or education now and in the future.

Once again, in 2020 the winning students applied creativity and showed great enthusiasm for their project ideas and it was a pleasure engaging with them. The reports for two of last year’s winning projects have now been published on the FRAME website and can be viewed here.

2020 Summer Studentship Projects

Our 2020 winners include Martina Bonassera, currently a student at Cardiff University where she is studying for a BSc in Biochemistry. Martina and her supervisor had a great idea for her project, and she impressed us throughout with her passion and commitment, feeding back regularly with presentations and expanding the project to include more data.

Martina’s project looked at the use of Non-Technical Summaries (NTSs) to sustain the Replacement, Reduction and Refinement of animal use in Respiratory Disease Research. The NTS’s are publicly available summaries of all animal research projects that have been granted licenses by the UK Home Office. The NTS is a legally required aspect of animal research and is important for increasing transparency and public awareness. They also give an insight into the nature of approved projects, the considerations given by researchers to the 3Rs, and their justification for requiring animals. In this project Martina reviews the quality and content of the NTS in more detail.

You can read an outline of her project in her report here. Excitingly, the project went so well that Martina and her supervisor extended the research to include more data and analysis, which they are hoping to assemble into a full report to submit for journal publication. We will keep you posted!

Caterina Dixon was also awarded a grant last year. Caterina is a Veterinary student at the University of Cambridge with a real passion for animal welfare. In her project, she used bioinformatics (computer-based technology and tools for analysing and understanding biological data) to collate and analyse available biological data to identify specific physiological differences between animal species and the impact this has on their response to different drugs.

It is well known that differences in physiology and metabolism between species is responsible for causing differences in how animals respond to drugs – a mouse may not behave in the same way as a dog, or a human. This is one of the cited reasons for the poor translation seen from preclinical to clinical trials. In preclinical research, animals are used to predict safety and efficacy of new drugs prior to clinical trials on people. It is also well publicised, and often required in the guidelines, that the most relevant species is used in specific tests. Yet sometimes the regulations also require tests on a second species of animal, often a larger mammal such as a dog. This can lead to scenarios where more animals are being used without adding new knowledge or value. Tools that help understand or assess the relevance of a species and their similarity to humans could help streamline this process of species selection, or rejection in pharmaceutical research and testing. These tools may also highlight scenarios where animals are not clinically relevant and potentially reduce animal use and make the drug development pipeline more efficient.

Caterina’s project took her into unfamiliar territory, which she used to enhance her skills of data collection and critical analysis. Her project made use of bioinformatics to analyse the primary protein structure of different target cells for three named drugs within eight different animal species, including humans, mice, dogs, cows and rabbits. In the second part of the project, Caterina reviewed published data on responses and efficacy of the three named drugs in the different species to look for similarities and differences that may have resulted from differences in the protein structure of the target proteins. Whilst her results were inconclusive, this project highlights possible avenues to create potential tools for assessing species relevance through the use of available data and suggests possible next steps. You can read her full report here.

Caterina shares her Summer Studentship experience: “When I first heard that I had been given one of the FRAME Studentships for the summer of 2020, I was so excited. The first thing I did was run around the house screaming the news. I told the pets, my sisters, everyone!

“I knew how rare an opportunity I’d been given and could not wait to try and tackle the important question I had asked. In both applying for the project and in doing the project itself, I developed skills such as cooperating with a supervisor, adapting to their feedback and learning how to write concisely.

“My project is rather inconclusive, which at first I found hard to come to terms with. I felt like I’d let FRAME down with no data clearly supporting my hypothesis. With time, however, I have realised that my project still had value. It shows just how lacking the pharmacological data is in non-human species – no wonder we continue to use the same laboratory animals in research. It is also important to know when your data is limited and not to draw invalid conclusions for the sake of an answer and to focus more on gathering evidence.

“To put simply, I could not have done my project without FRAME. They have supported me throughout the process, giving advice, checking that the project was on track and making me feel like I was part of a group much larger than just me and my supervisor. I feel truly honoured to have been given a chance to conduct research in such a vital branch of science. Thank you FRAME for this opportunity.”

Researchers of the future

Education and awareness are key drivers for change in the move away from animal research to modern human-based methods. At FRAME, we believe that connecting with future academic and industry scientists, regulators and policy makers is key to influencing change. The Summer Studentships are one way we are inspiring and engaging with the scientific researchers of the future, and we are privileged to connect with them and share our vision for a world where animals are no longer the go-to model for biomedical research.

Read Caterina’s report: Using bioinformatics to select specific animals for research in human medicine

Read Martina’s report: The use of NTS to sustain the 3Rs in respiratory diseases research

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