Joining Forces for Animal-Free Innovations
ZonMw reflected on the second edition of MKMD on Tour, which took place on 27 May 2019. We translated the original report for our non-Dutch readers:
Public-private collaboration is essential if we want to improve the quality of non-animal biomedical research. But how does such a public-private partnership work? What is needed to ensure that the collaboration leads to successful animal-free innovations? In the afternoon of May 27, three Utrecht consortia presented their projects and experiences. The conclusion was that there is no general formula for success for cooperation in consortia, except that we can learn a lot by sharing stories. ZonMw and the U-AIM hub of Utrecht University organized this second meeting of MKMD (‘more knowledge less animals’) on Tour.
On the picture: Nynke Kramer, Bas Blaauwboer en Eveline van Rijswijk (moderator)
Jos Malda (professor of Veterinary Medicine and team leader of U-AIM) opened the afternoon with a brief introduction to the Utrecht Advanced In Vitro Models hub (U-AIM). In this hub, expertise and knowledge are combined to reduce the use of laboratory animals by accelerating the development of innovative animal-free models. U-AIM creates and facilitates collaborations between researchers, students, legislators and regulators and the industry to further develop, validate and implement in vitro models in accordance with the interests and wishes of the stakeholders. Multidisciplinary cooperation and connection with stakeholders are essential, and U-AIM has a broad focus. Reacting to a question from the audience, Jos Malda confirmed that changes in legislation and regulation are also receiving attention and that there is much to be gained.
Human leftover material for research: a logical idea but difficult to organize
With the VitalTissue project, Evita van de Steeg (TNO and project leader) and Martje Fentener van Vlissingen (Erasmus MC) gained a lot of experience in forming this consortium. Here, various organizations from the public and private domain, knowledge institutions, (academic) hospitals, companies and foundations work together to make vital human leftover material available to researchers.
In many cases, biomedical research is still dependent on animal models, but in other cases they have very limited predictive value for use in humans. Medications that hardly had any side effects in monkeys were found to be life-threatening in clinical trials on humans. A solution for this is the use of vital human tissue that is leftover after surgery. Biomedical scientists can do research with this material. The big challenge is how this material ends up with the right researcher under the right conditions and on time. In the Vital Tissue project, which is funded by the Proefdiervrij Foundation, the Cooperating Health Funds and ZonMw, Evita van de Steeg and her team are investigating how this can be achieved.
VitalTissue is a large consortium with nearly 20 partners who all have an interest in this project. But as Martje van Fenterener Vlissingen stated: “It is an obvious idea but very difficult to organize.” Agreements must be reached with all partners about arranging patient permission, storage and management of data, preparation and storage of the material and transport. Moreover, all kinds of legal and ethical aspects must be taken into account. The outcome of the Vital Tissue project will be an advice with options for specifications of the samples, logistics, conditions for storage and management of information.
The power of small consortia
The Risk-IT project consists of a relatively small consortium in which the partners work together to develop better and animal-free methods for a better risk assessment of chemical substances. Until now, a risk assessment of chemical substances is often based on the results of animal studies and these cannot be translated 1:1 to people. Nynke Kramer (Utrecht University) and her team have created a link between data from in vitro tests for determining toxicity mechanisms, and computer models that translate in vitro data into a toxic effect in an organism (QIVIVE – Quantative In Vitro – In Vivo Extrapolation). This combination allows researchers to obtain better information for the risk assessment of chemical substances and medicines. This project focuses primarily on toxic effects in the kidneys; in clinical studies, these effects are often the reason why a drug cannot be marketed.
The composition of the relatively small consortium of Risk-IT has grown organically, as Nynke explained in response questions from the audience. It went surprisingly easy, and Bas Blaauboer, member of the team, added that interest in the project and mutual trust played an important role. It was clear that the goals and interests of the consortium partners, including the University of Würzberg, the Fraunhofer Institute and BASF, ran parallel. The collaboration with industry was very valuable for this project. Industrial partners often have a lot of unpublished data. There were no restrictions for its use for this project. It also helps to make clear agreements about this from the start, Bas emphasized. Nynke and Bas have also experienced that a consortium with a small number of partners is easier to manage. Large consortia with a lot of matching are not necessarily the best solution for all issues.
Formula for success: different perspectives, the same scientific language
A similar coupling of computer models with results from an in vitro method has been set up within the project of Teun de Boer (UMC Utrecht) and András Horvath (Nanion Technologies). In this case, human heart muscle cells have been grown from human stem cells, the electrical activity of which can be measured using the so-called Patch Clamp method (electrophysiology). The technology was developed in collaboration with Nanion and is able to measure electrical signals in individual cells through Dynamic Clamping. With the classical method, this is not possible. Nanion combines this with automated Patch Clamping so that many measurements can be done in a short period of time. The results are translated into effects on the heart in patients using an advanced computer model. By using human cells, not only the predictive value of the test becomes much greater, it also opens the door to “personalized medicine.” A patient receives a treatment that is tested on his own cells, so that the best treatment for the patient can be chosen with as few side effects as possible.
The collaboration between the research group of Teun de Boer and Nanion, a company in Munich that provides tools and services for analysis, went smoothly. According to András Horvath, this is because Nanion is a research-oriented company. Teun and András have the same scientific background, but at the same time they work on this project from different perspectives, namely science and business. Speaking the same scientific language facilitates collaboration.
Public-private partnerships for animal-free innovation are tailor-made
During the podium discussion, the speakers engaged in conversation with each other and the audience was given the opportunity to ask questions. Of course, there was room to discuss possible collaborations. A generally shared opinion crystallized from the presentations earlier that afternoon: that there is no set recipe for public-private partnerships. The projects mentioned above are examples of successful cooperation between private and public parties. There is often a great willingness to cooperate, and private and public parties often have common interests. The speakers agreed that it is crucial to invest a lot of time and energy in networking. When a network has sufficient critical mass, the interactions lead to opportunities and the identification of common interests. Meetings such as MKMD On Tour offer opportunities to network, to get ideas and to meet people who work on something that is complementary to their own work. Own initiative remains important.
Thus, collaboration does not arise automatically. Sometimes, a bundling of knowledge and expertise is needed to further facilitate a collaboration. In Utrecht, they set up hubs for this, such as U-AIM for the development of non-animal innovations. By bringing together people with knowledge and experience in this field, U-AIM has a broad overview of the locally available expertise and techniques. This allows them to link the right experts to private parties to answer a specific question. And when developing a new method, the wishes of the stakeholders and regulatory requirements can be taken into account at an early stage, according to Damiën van Berlo, scientific program officer at U-AIM.
The projects of Evita van de Steeg, Nynke Kramer, Teun de Boer and the U-AIM hub show that public-private collaboration is essential if we want to improve the quality of non-animal biomedical research. Depending on the people involved, their networks and the specific request of a public or private party to improve or develop a technique or method, the consortium is formed and the cooperation is completed. One can learn from each other’s experiences and that is what also happened during this second edition of MKMD on Tour.