Nottingham expert wins award for work replacing the use of animals in research

Wednesday, 09 June 2021

An expert from the University of Nottingham has received a prestigious award for her work in advancing cancer research, while reducing the need for animal testing.

Dr Jennifer Ashworth, from the Nottingham Biodiscovery Institute and Nottingham Centre for Cancer Sciences at the University, has been highly commended in the 3Rs Prize. The annual awards are led by the UK’s National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research (NC3Rs) - a scientific organisation dedicated to replacing, refining and reducing the use of animals in research and testing.

The awards, which are sponsored by GSK, aim to recognise work published in the previous three years that has a major impact on the replacement, reduction and refinement of the use of animals in research.

Dr Ashworth was highly commended for her work in developing non-animal derived hydrogels that aim to match the stiffness and chemistry of the human breast. These hydrogels can be used as lab-based models of breast cancer, to advance cancer research while reducing the need for animal testing.

The hydrogels can replace Matrigel, which is a substance derived from mouse tumours and currently used in many in vitro studies to support cell growth. The hydrogels can be altered by adding proteins and sugars, altering their stiffness and composition to replicate different environments in the body. Dr Ashworth has used these hydrogels to grow breast cancer cells, including cell lines and patient-derived samples, which would otherwise have needed to be sustained using large quantities of Matrigel, or by implanting into mice.

Dr Jennifer Ashworth

Dr Ashworth said: “I am delighted to have been awarded this prize from NC3Rs. It is my career goal to develop biomaterials that can replace the use of animals in research, and I am honoured to have my work acknowledged in this way. The research funds that come with the award will allow me to start on the path towards an independent research career, using biomaterial models to understand and treat serious diseases like cancer. I would like to thank NC3Rs for their support and for this opportunity to build upon my research in the 3Rs.”

A cluster of breast cells growing in a hydrogel

Professor Cathy Merry, lead of the Stem Cell Glycobiology group in which Dr Ashworth carried out the study, said: “I’m delighted that Jenny’s work, developing a hydrogel to replace animal use and use of animal-derived products, has been recognised by this award. Since working on an NC3Rs-funded project as part of my group, Jenny has since moved to work with Professor Anna Grabowska to continue to develop the use of lab-based models to sit alongside or to replace animal models. It’s been fantastic to see Jenny develop new technologies and new collaborations as part of her role and I’m sure she’ll continue to innovate in this space in the future. The hydrogels Jenny helped to develop have gone from strength to strength, now used for multiple applications by groups across the world “

Professor Kevin Shakesheff, Chair of the NC3Rs Board and 3Rs Prize Panel, said: “As ever, the applications received by the Panel were of a very high standard. Both the winning and highly commended publications demonstrate how 3Rs methods can be used to pioneer better science that is more relevant to human health. I am delighted to see how organoid technology has progressed since it was first recognised by the 3Rs Prize in 2013 and look forward to seeing how these two early career researchers will further develop their work in future projects.”

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More information is available from Dr Jennifer Ashworth, from the Nottingham Biodiscovery Institute at

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