Towards animal-free cancer research

12 Nov 2009 10:18:00.000

PA 292/09

Cutting edge research into better cancer treatment without the need for animal experiments has taken a major step forward at The University of Nottingham.


Scientists at the School of Clinical Science’s Division of Pre-Clinical Oncology have won a highly prestigious £400,000 grant from the National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research (NC3Rs). The award is for research to tackle the urgent need to develop anti-cancer drugs to treat solid tumours such as bowel and lung cancers, with a focus on a new and better system of testing which also has the potential to replace experiments in mice.


The National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research (NC3Rs) was established by the UK government in 2004. It is an independent scientific organisation and the largest funder of 3Rs research in the UK.

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Nearly 400,000 mice were used in cancer research in both academia and industry in the UK in 2008. The mice are used to test and predict the clinical efficiency of anti-cancer therapies but these ‘in vivo’ models have not proved to be the most effective way of testing these drugs, with only 30 to 40 per cent of them providing useful results.


The aim of the pioneering research at the University is to create a new type of environment in which to test cancer drugs outside the human body where their effects can be more accurately monitored. The scientists have developed a technique to create three dimensional tumour spheroids, derived from real, living tumour tissue, which can be suspended in a new kind of ‘in vitro’ laboratory model instead of in a mouse model. These spheroids have better preserved characteristics of the tumour micro-environment, including reduced sensitivity to chemotherapies and enhanced malignant potential compared to traditional ‘in vitro’ monolayer single cell cultures. 


The cancer cell clusters are suspended in an ‘artificial tissue mass’ called a ‘biomatrix’ consisting of a complex macromolecular gel in which the living cancer cells can multiply and behave as they would in a patient. Previous grants to the University have been used to develop a new technique to modify the cells to become fluorescent/bioluminescent so any change and growth can be more easily monitored. The researchers will be able to see more clearly how the cells within the cluster are dying or dividing, as well as their oxygen levels and blood supply, as the tumour sample is preserved in the biomatrix. In this way, cancer drugs and combinations of drugs can be monitored as to their effects on the tumour cells in real time.


The scientists have high hopes for their new system which has the potential to replace and improve on the traditional xenograft tumour models in mice. They hope it will significantly reduce the number of animals used to investigate the biology of the tumour environment for new drug target identification.


Leading the project, Professor of Pre-clinical Oncology, Susan Watson said: “We are thrilled to receive this grant from the NC3Rs, the first of its kind awarded to The University of Nottingham.  Hopefully our resulting work will create highly useful and accurate models which will help predict the effectiveness of new anti-cancer drugs in patients.” 


— Ends —


Notes to editors: The University of Nottingham is ranked in the UK's Top 10 and the World's Top 100 universities by the Shanghai Jiao Tong (SJTU) and Times Higher (THE) World University Rankings.


More than 90 per cent of research at The University of Nottingham is of international quality, according to RAE 2008, with almost 60 per cent of all research defined as ‘world-leading’ or ‘internationally excellent’. Research Fortnight analysis of RAE 2008 ranks the University 7th in the UK by research power. In 27 subject areas, the University features in the UK Top Ten, with 14 of those in the Top Five.


The University provides innovative and top quality teaching, undertakes world-changing research, and attracts talented staff and students from 150 nations. Described by The Times as Britain's “only truly global university”, it has invested continuously in award-winning campuses in the United Kingdom, China and Malaysia. Twice since 2003 its research and teaching academics have won Nobel Prizes. The University has won the Queen's Award for Enterprise in both 2006 (International Trade) and 2007 (Innovation — School of Pharmacy), and was named ‘Entrepreneurial University of the Year’ at the Times Higher Education Awards 2008.


Nottingham was designated as a Science City in 2005 in recognition of its rich scientific heritage, industrial base and role as a leading research centre. Nottingham has since embarked on a wide range of business, property, knowledge transfer and educational initiatives (  in order to build on its growing reputation as an international centre of scientific excellence. The University of Nottingham is a partner in Nottingham: the Science City.


The National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research (NC3Rs) is an independent, scientific organisation which finds innovative solutions to: replace animals in research with non-animal alternatives; reduce the number of animals used in experiments and refine scientific procedures and animal husbandry to minimise suffering. The NC3Rs works in partnership with bioscience research funders, academia, industry, regulators and animal welfare organisations, both in the UK and internationally, to advance the 3Rs.


The NC3Rs was set up by the UK government in 2004, and is funded by the Medical Research Council, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, the Home Office, the Wellcome Trust, the Association of British Pharmaceutical Industry, GlaxoSmithKline, AstraZeneca, Unilever, The Dow Chemical Company, SC Johnson, Syngenta and Shell. More information can be found here:

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More information is available from Professor Sue Watson, Division of Pre-Clinical Oncology, on +44 (0)115 823 1134 ,


Emma Rayner - Media Relations Manager

Email: Phone: +44 (0)115 951 5793 Location: University Park

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