Summer Studentship Awards
The FRAME Studentship Programme provides grants to undergraduates to undertake research projects in an area relating to the development and uptake of alternative methods.
The annual Summer Studentship Programme aims to be an incubator for the alternatives researchers of the future to develop their research skills and knowledge. Undergraduate students today have the potential to play key roles in developing, refining and implementing alternative, human-based methods and help achieve our vision of a future in which non-animal methods are the scientific first choice. Relevant projects for these awards most often include laboratory work, but might also take the form of social science research into behaviour and policy influence. They could for example look at accelerating the uptake of non-animal methods or barriers to achieving change. Occasionally, FRAME will offer specific project briefs according to our current strategic priorities for students to apply to.
The FRAME Summer Studentship Programme
The FRAME Summer Studentship Programme was launched in 2019 and provides grant funding for students looking to undertake a summer research project. These projects may not have been planned as an alternative to the use of laboratory animals but should have the potential to advance knowledge or techniques which will help lead to the replacement of animals in research.
The Summer Studentship Programme runs annually and applications usually open in January. Students require a project Supervisor at their academic institution to act as the grant holder.
- We aim to award a minimum of two Summer Studentship grants annually.
- Project duration should be 6 – 10 weeks.
- The current stipend is £250 per week with up to £1000 awarded for consumables and research costs.
- The scheme is aimed at undergraduates, but applications we also currently accept applications from Master’s students.
- Applicants must be associated with a university or research institution within the UK.
We will be accepting applications for the 2022 Summer Studentship Awards in January. Information will be shared on this page with more details.
FRAME Summer Studentship 2021 winners
2021 saw an increase in the number of applications and diversity of project ideas. The panel assessing the applications were impressed and inspired by the quality of the entries. As a result, FRAME is delighted to share that five summer studentship grants have been awarded to students from universities across the country. Here we introduce our successful 2021 grant awardees and their project plans.
Organ-on-a-chip model for studying strokes
Jia Jhing Sia from Malaysia has just completed the penultimate year of her BA in Biomedical Sciences at the University of Oxford. She is carrying out her summer project at the Laboratory for Cerebral Ischaemia based at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford under the supervision of Research Fellow, Dr Paul Holloway.
Her project: ‘Delineating pericyte contribution to hereditary cerebral small vessel disease using organ on chip technologies’ aims to use in vitro, organ-on-a-chip culture systems to investigate the role of a type of cell called a ‘pericyte’ in diseases that affect the blood vessels in the brain, causing strokes and dementia.
Pericyte cells are found in the lining of blood vessels throughout the body and in the brain, and they are particularly important in stabilising and maintaining vessel function. Cerebral small vessel diseases (cSVD) are a group of neurological disorders that affect the structure and function of these small blood vessels. cSVD’s have been shown to be a major cause of strokes and contribute to over 50% of dementia, with brain vessel dysfunction linked to decline of cognitive function with age. However, despite the high incidence of stroke and dementia, very little is known about the underlying causes of cSVD. Understanding how dysfunction of pericytes might lead to disease may help to reveal new approaches to treatment and care.
The nervous system, including brain research, remains one of the top reported areas of basic, translational, and applied research to use animals. In the UK in 2020, over 37,000 procedures were carried out on animals for the purpose of research into the human nervous system and mental disorders. Stroke models using human cells are particularly limited and, as such, research heavily relies on animal models. According to a 2012 study, only 30 of 30,000 stroke studies identified used human in vitro models.
Jia Jhing explains: “Neurological disease modelling is unfortunately an area that is still largely dominated by animal research and testing owing to the limitations of investigating human brains in patients, and the complexity of modelling the human central nervous system (CNS) in the lab. The urgent need to develop new, non-animal CNS models is highlighted by contradictory findings in animal models of neurological diseases. This is in the main due to the significant variation shown between different species and is reflected in the low success rate seen in clinical trials for drugs treating the nervous system. There is an urgent need for more human relevant models of the CNS to help investigate disease and predict the efficacy and safety of potential new drugs to treat the brain and nervous system.”
Organ-on-a-chip models are modern in vitro models that use multiple cell types to recreate a living 3D model of an organ and replicate the flow of chemicals found in that organ. They provide a more realistic environment to predict the behaviour of cells than more simple cell culture methods. Jia Jhing hopes to gain new insights into cSVD by recreating brain blood vessels using cells derived from patients with genetic forms of cSVD to understand how pericytes contribute to vessel dysfunction and stroke. Using patient cells provides direct relevance to the disease allowing the study of human cells. By using organ on chip technologies to create a realistic environment for these cells, this project hopes to improve the predictive power of in vitro models to study new therapies for cSVD.
FRAME Education & Outreach Manager Amy Beale added: “We are really pleased to be able to support Jia Jhing’s project. Stroke is an area where laboratory animals are still widely used in research and human models remain few and far between. Consequently, our understanding of human specific brain disease such as Alzheimer’s, remains poor and the development of new treatments is very slow. Current stroke research relies heavily on animal models, inducing stoke through surgical or drug intervention, or the breeding of strains with mutations that have distressing side effects such as recurrent brain bleeds or high mortality at birth. Despite years of research into brain disease and strokes, there is a blanket failure in translation from animal research to clinical progress, particularly in recent years. This is an area where extra funding and a change in approach are desperately needed.”
Using data to understand how mutations drive colon cancer
Oncology is another research area that still relies heavily on animal use. Replacing or reducing animal use in an area of research can be achieved not only through the development of new culture methods using human tissue, but also using data obtained directly from patients. Every year, more studies are carried out and more data collected, that can provide a wealth of information about factors contributing to the cause of a disease, help evaluate current treatments or identify potential new diagnostic lines of enquiry. Our next successful project aims to do just this.
Lisa van den Driest is currently studying for a BSc (Hons) in Pharmacology and Microbiology at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow. She has a strong interest in bioinformatics and is hoping to gain extra experience through her Summer Studentship that will help her progress to pursuing a PhD in the future. Bioinformatics is a mix of biology, computer science, information engineering, mathematics, and statistics, and uses software and other tools to help store, analyse and understand complex biological data.
In her project: ‘Development of a gene expression bioinformatics pipeline to identify driver mutations of colorectal cancer,’ Lisa hopes to understand the key mutations driving colon cancer and any links they have to disease prognosis using existing clinical data from online freely available databases. The ultimate aim of which is to identify mutations occurring in patients with colorectal cancer and establish how they contribute to patient outcomes. This information may help inform understanding of colon cancer diagnosis, treatment, and prognosis.
Colon cancer is one of the leading cancer types worldwide with only 53% of diagnosed patients surviving for 10 years or more after a colon cancer diagnosis. As more people are diagnosed and treated, more tumour samples are tested from biopsies and more information is collated about cancer patients, their genes and the corresponding differences shown due to these genetic differences.
Lisa elaborates: “In recent years, with significant advancements in gene sequencing technologies and the increasing numbers of biobanks from patient tumour biopsies, there has been a significant rise in the amount of clinical information available within the public domain. These datasets provide a significant wealth of information for researchers to examine patterns of gene expression and their role in disease. A key advantage of using these datasets is replacing the need for animal testing and refining their use in studying patterns of disease. If we can use information contained in patient samples, this will reduce the need for exploratory studies in animals which may ultimately prove to not translate to humans.”Software to help assess the effect of drugs on brain tumours
Our next successful project is addressing the need for more human relevant tools to help evaluate drugs in the treatment of cancer. Such tools have the potential to provide greater insight into cancer biology than animal-based methods of research. This project is looking into treatments for a particular cancer that is highly invasive and is the most common form of brain tumour in children and adults.
Sally Prior has one year of study left to complete her BSc in Medical Biochemistry at the University of Huddersfield and hopes to one day study for a PhD in cancer biology. She is completing her summer project on the ‘Validation of a Novel Software Plugin for Analysis of 3D Models of Paediatric Glioma Cell Migration’ under the supervision of senior lecturer and Glioma Research Group leader Dr Anke Brüning-Richardson.
Sally explains: “Gliomas are a group of highly invasive cancers which originate in the brain or spine and are now the biggest cancer killers in children. Due to their invasive nature and re-growth after initial treatment ultimately leading to the death of patients, our research into gliomas centres on studying the effect drugs have on cell properties such as migration or invasion. This is to prevent recurrence of such cancers and promote patient survival. Currently, rodents are used to study the effect of cancer drugs in vivo, including within glioma research. Our laboratory has been developing a 3D invasion model to allow the reduction and hopefully replacement of such in vivo models. A software capable of analysing 3D generated effects of anti-migratory drugs has been developed alongside the 3D invasion model to allow the generation of clinically relevant data.”
This interesting project incorporates modern computer technology with cell culture methods. An already established 3D cancer model will be used alongside a non-animal-based matrix and established glioma cell lines (obtained from glioma patients – highlighting the importance of ethically donated tissue from patients to advance cancer research) to produce spheroids. These spheroids or ‘mini-tumours’ will then be treated with known anti-migratory drugs to inhibit the tumour growth, and various measurements will be collected from the cells after they are treated, including data from confocal laser scanning microscopy. This data will then be analysed using a newly developed software to assess the ability of the drugs to limit tumour spread and alter the properties of the glioma cells. This will allow the accuracy of the software to be validated and open the door to its use in assessing other new drugs to potentially stop the spread of gliomas.
If the software is validated successfully, there may be potential to adapt it in future to assess the suitability of drugs in other cancer types. Sally says that the choice to investigate gliomas in this project is due to a lack of funding in this area, as there is an absence of progress compared to other areas of cancer research such as breast or prostate cancer, despite gliomas having a high mortality rate. The development of software such as this to assess drug efficacy has the potential to reduce the use of animals in cancer research. We look forward to hearing updates and very much hope the validation is a success for Sally and the team.
A review of computer models in neuroscience research
William Hunt is studying for a BSc in Neuroscience with a professional training year at Cardiff University. Will’s project: ‘Using Computer Models as a Method of Replacing the Use of Animals in Neuroscience Research’ incorporates a review into computer modelling, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning, with a discussion around the application of these tools in specific areas of neuroscience research.
This project is again focusing on neuroscience – an area of biomedical research where we know some human conditions are not naturally occurring in animals, and therefore promising research findings are often not translating into progress in understanding of human diseases or progression in treatments. The continued popularity of animal-based research in some of these areas raises both ethical and scientific concerns. Will agrees, and says it inspired him to develop the idea for his summer project: “Since starting my placement year, I have gained a better appreciation for the vast use of animals in scientific research, especially within behavioural neuroscience. This has motivated me to explore and investigate the methods being developed in attempt to replace animal models. In particular, I came across in silico human-based computer models in research that are reported to produce results consistent with, or better than animal models.”
An important skill for any researcher is knowing how to review the body of existing evidence to help formulate a plan to address a research question. Literature reviews and systematic reviews are two ways of doing this. Literature reviews consider all published work in a particular area, whilst systematic reviews are a more carefully planned, comprehensive review which aim to take into account unpublished evidence as well. Searching for and through research in this way is key, particularly when researchers are considering animal research.
Amy Beale says: “The correct implementation of the 3Rs in research is a requirement under legislation to protect animal used for scientific purposes. Replacement is the priority. Animal research must be replaced with non-animal methods that can supply the same information if they exist. To do this sufficiently, the ability to search through the field for other methods and evaluate them is fundamental. Carrying out such reviews effectively is now more important in a world where new computer technology and cell culture methods are being developed and validated all the time. As more ‘alternatives’ to animals are successfully used and published they have to be shared, read and followed up if we want to drive their progression and uptake to a point where we can eliminate the need for animals in testing and research.”
Will is drawing on the skills he developed during a bioinformatics-based placement year where he investigated the role of the psychiatric risk gene, SETD1A. Will is hoping in the future to use the skills from his degree to carry out either a psychiatric or neurodegenerative disease focused PhD, or to train as a clinical scientist in the NHS. We are sure this Summer Studentship project, which is being supervised by Dr Wynand van der Goes van Naters at Cardiff University, will stand him in good stead.
Developing a new model to study lung inflammation
Our final winning student is Emma Turnbull. Emma has just completed the final year of her BSc Biomedical Sciences degree at Newcastle University. She is undertaking her summer project to create a novel (new) 3D lung model that can be used to study lung inflammation during infection before starting a MRes in Immunobiology this October. Her project titled: ‘Towards replacement of animals in lung inflammation research: developing novel 3D model of human lung inflammation in vitro’ is being supervised by Wellcome Trust Fellow Dr Polina Yarova, and co-supervised by Dr Kate Musgrave and Professor John Simpson, all based in the Translational and Clinical Research Facility at the Newcastle Faculty of Medical Sciences.
Emma says: “Lung infection and inflammation is one of the leading causes of death worldwide. Critically ill patients are especially prone to developing pneumonia, which often leads to lung failure, with no treatment currently available to rectify this. Multiple animal models have been used to mimic pneumonia, but animals are not humans, and results obtained using animals poorly translate into patients and raise ethical concerns. In response to this, several in vitro models of human lung were proposed. However, most of those models recapitulate some, but not all features of the human lung, forcing researchers to use animals to answer more complex questions, where interaction of multiple cell types is required.”
To create the in vitro lung model, Emma proposes to use upside-down co-culture of human lung cells to recreate the lung surface, and a human lung-derived gel to recreate the lung matrix. The model can then have white blood cells added from human volunteers and particles from disease causing micro-organisms and observe inflammatory responses.
The aim of the project is to create a 3D in vitro model of the human lung suitable for studying inflammation and infection in various settings. Once successfully developed, the model will be utilised by other members of the university group for further study to look at the effects of hypoxia (oxygen deficiency in the tissue), bacterial or viral infection and drug development applications. Emma has gained work experience in a variety of labs and is hoping this project will enhance her skills and knowledge and form the basis for a PhD application in the future. Emma has cemented a relationship with Dr Musgrave, Dr Yarova and Professor Simpson whilst working on her thesis on sepsis and systemic inflammation for her undergraduate degree and looks forward to continuing that relationship for her PhD. She is excited to eventually pursue a career in biomedical research.
Advances in 3D cell models of human organs such as this will ultimately pave the way to a future of biomedical testing without animals. Emma has a committed team supporting her and we can’t wait to hear how they get on.
We’d like to congratulate all our Summer Studentship winners this year and thank everyone who took the time to apply. Look out for updates on our 2022 programme on the FRAME website and social media channels.
Despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, we were still keen to support undergraduate research projects. Lockdown meant that many grants for practical research projects had to be postponed, as students and supervisors were unable to carry out laboratory work. To ensure we could continue to support students, we decided to redirect the funds during 2020 to allow applications for desk-based research projects and reviews only.
We were pleased to receive a number of interesting applications for our revised grant call and to be able to award three grants due to the reduced costs associated with the desk-based projects.
The funded projects were:
- The use of animal models in respiratory diseases research – Martina Bonassera from Cardiff University.
- Single species testing in pharmaceutical drug development – Caterina Dixon from the University of Cambridge.
- Academic attitudes towards the use of GM (genetically modified) animals – Gréta Utassy from Cardiff University.
Find out more about the 2020 FRAME Summer Studentship Programme projects.
We launched the FRAME Summer Studentship Programme in 2019 and were delighted to receive a number of interesting applications featuring research projects relating to the development of alternatives to animal use in research.
We selected two projects, you can read their final reports here:
- Developing a novel assay to study biofilm formation in Galleria mellonella – Elentina Gjoni – Brunel University
- Development of a synthetic skin model to test the efficacy of therapeutic ulttrasound in skin healing – Rachele Bacchetti from the University of Sheffield.