IFER awards 3 new graduate student fellowships for scientific research utilizing innovative animal alternative methodologies

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In the Spotlight

IFER awards 3 new graduate student fellowships for scientific research utilizing innovative animal alternative methodologies

by Sherry Ward, AltTox Contributing Editor
Posted: October 14, 2015

The purpose of the International Foundation for Ethical Research (IFER) Graduate Fellowship Program is “to provide financial incentives to graduate students in science that encourage them at the earliest stages of their career to integrate innovation and discovery with ethics and respect for animals.” IFER Graduate Fellowships are awarded annually (see IFER Graduate Fellowships below).

The President of IFER, Peggy Cunniff, and Executive Director, Peter O’Donovan, are pleased to announce this month the funding of three new IFER Graduate Fellowships as well as the renewal of four fellowships awarded in previous years, based on the recommendations of the IFER Scientific Advisory Board and the approval of the IFER Board of Directors.

The 2015 fellowship awardees, and their proposed research projects, are the following:

Proposal: Application of Human iPSC-derived Mesenchymal Progenitor Cells to Develop Osteochondral Microtissues for Osteoarthritis Drug Testing
Graduate Student: Kanica Rautji
Faculty Advisor: Dr. Rocky S. Tuan
Educational Institution: University of Pittsburgh

Dr. Tuan’s laboratory has developed an impressive in vitro 3-dimensional cartilage/bone microtissue that mimics the osteochondral junction, a primary site of tissue degeneration in osteoarthritis. Osteochondral microtissues are currently developed using bone marrow-derived mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) within a hydrogel matrix, and cultured in a sophisticated bioreactor system. The bioreactor system includes the ability to conduct mechanical loading and impact studies on the tissues. This in vitro osteochondral junction provides a model for simulating the degenerative joint disease, osteoarthritis, and testing potential drug therapeutics.

The proposed research will standardize the production of the osteochondral microtissue model by building the tissue using induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), rather than MSCs. MSCs from individual donors are difficult to isolate, available in limited numbers, and have a limited lifespan – problems which may be resolved with the use of iPSCs. The Tuan laboratory has recently derived and characterized mesenchymal progenitor cells (iMPCs) that overcome many of the problems associated with the use of MSCs. Their goals for the proposed research are to use the iMPCs to develop osteochondral microtissues and compare them to the microtissues developed using MSCs. This human stem cell-based platform will then be used to study the causes of osteoarthritic joint degeneration, and to test potential disease modifying agents.

Proposal: Can Stem Cell-derived Neurons from Discarded Teeth Replace Animal Cells in Neuropharmacology Studies?
Graduate Student: Kathleen Metz
Faculty Advisor: Dr. Robert F. Halliwell
Educational Institution: University of the Pacific

Dental pulp from some types of human teeth is a source of adult mesenchymal stem cells, and “a promising tool in regenerative medicine due to their capacity to differentiate into multiple lineages.” Efforts to use human dental stem cells (hDSCs) have been hampered by the lack of the specific tools and knowledge needed to identify and isolate hDSCs, and to differentiate them into other types of tissues.

The research proposed by Ms. Metz and Dr. Halliwell “aims to develop and evaluate new protocols for the differentiation of hDSCs into nerve cells.” They propose that the derivation and validation of hDSC-derived neurons will provide a useful in vitro source of these cells for research, drug discovery, and testing purposes.

In previous studies, researchers in the Halliwell laboratory derived neurons from an existing human stem cell line, and found that the cells developed “an array of functional receptors and ion channels with a pharmacological profile in keeping with that described for native neurons,” and that they could be used to assess the developmental toxicity risk of several antiepileptic drugs.

Their proposal reports preliminary studies using hDSCs that were developed using several different published differentiation protocols, which did not lead to the development of fully functional neurons. As part of their IFER-funded research, Metz and Halliwell will explore other approaches to hDSC differentiation to determine their potential to differentiate into mature functional neurons.

Proposal: Human Gut Inflammation-on-a-Chip for Replacing Animal Models
Graduate Student: Hyoyoung Jeong
Faculty Advisor: Dr. Hyun Jung Kim
Educational Institution: University of Texas, Austin

The “human gut-on-a-chip” microphysiological system recreates the microenvironment of the human intestine. In previous studies by Dr. Kim, Caco-2 cells were shown to differentiate into 3-dimensional, intestinal-like villi in the gut-on-a-chip system that simulates the peristalsis-like motion and flow of the intestine. The gut-on-a-chip device is composed of two microfluidic channels separated by a flexible and porous membrane with Caco-2 cells cultured on the extracellular matrix-coated membrane. Additionally, the Caco-2 cells were successfully co-cultured with the normal intestinal microbe, Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG, for up to a week in the gut-on-a-chip system without compromising epithelial cell viability.

In the proposed project, a gut-on-a-chip system will be used to test the beneficial effects of probiotic microbes on intestinal inflammation. This “gut inflammation-on-a-chip” model will be used to assess chemically-induced inflammation by exposing the cultured cells to dextran sulphate sodium, which induces colitis in a mouse model, followed by treatments with probiotic and prebiotic therapeutics to determine their effect on the chemical-induced cellular inflammation.

Fellowship Renewals

Four IFER fellowships were renewed for an additional year. These research projects, including student interviews, are described on the IFER website. The 2014 projects were also introduced in a previous AltTox article.

Identification of pathways of developmental neurotoxicity (DNT) of environmental chemicals by -omics technologies
Graduate Student: Georgina Harris
Faculty Advisors: Dr. Lena Smirnova and Dr. Thomas Hartung
Educational Institution: Center for Alternatives to Animal Testing, Johns Hopkins University

Structural and functional neuroplasticity of Parkinson’s disease following a sensori-motor contingent musical walking intervention (Ambulosono)
Graduate Student: Sun Nee Tan
Faculty Advisor: Dr. Martin McKeown
Educational Institution: University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada

In vitro 3D flow through system for improved intestinal permeability model
Graduate Student: Erica Schlesinger
Faculty Advisor: Dr. Tejal Desai
Educational Institution: University of California San Francisco

Human cancer-on-a-chip as a replacement for animal testing
Graduate Student: Bryan Hassell
Faculty Advisor: Dr. Donald E. Ingber
Educational Institution: Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, Harvard University

IFER Graduate Fellowships

The International Foundation for Ethical Research

IFER Fellowships support graduate student research projects that intend to develop and/or utilize innovative non-animal methodologies that will reduce or replace the use of animals in an area of biomedical research, education, or safety testing. Projects to increase public awareness, or to promote changes in the legal system or public policy in these areas, may also be considered. The primary criteria in the evaluation of proposals are their scientific merit/quality, and their potential to replace the use of animals in science.

The IFER Graduate Fellowship Program provides up to $15,000 per awardee per year for up to 3 years. A limited number of full proposals are invited each year from among the open call for pre-proposals, which are due annually on April 20. For information on eligibility, areas of interest, guidelines, and past award recipients, visit the IFER website, or contact Mr. Peter O’Donovan at ifer@navs.org.

IFER, founded in 1985 and headquartered in Chicago, Illinois, is supported primarily by a grant from the National Anti-Vivisection Society (NAVS). The IFER Graduate Fellowships are part of IFER’s Mission to support “the development, validation, and implementation of scientifically valid methodologies that advance scientific research, product testing, and education without harming animals.”

Organizations and individuals interested in sponsoring (or contributing toward funding) an IFER fellowship can contact Mr. O’Donovan.