The Einstein Foundation is funding the new Einstein center for alternative methods in biomedical research with approximately 5.3 million euros through 2026. The new center aims to replace animal experiments with 3D models of human tissue cultures. This would not only strengthen animal welfare but also ensure that the results of laboratory experiments could be more easily transferred to humans. One of three coordinators of the center is Jens Kurreck, professor of applied biochemistry at TU Berlin. Together with his team, he is applying the new "3D bio-printing" procedure to print organ models from living cells which have similar functions to human organs. Kurreck was also responsible for external communication during the preparatory phase.
"During the coronavirus pandemic, it was important to be able to quickly develop effective vaccines. At present, this is not possible without animal testing," explains Professor Dr. Jens Kurreck. However, it is precisely this need that imposes on us a moral obligation to minimize the suffering of animals in these experiments to any extent possible and to replace them entirely with other procedures in the future. "Replacing animals is in humans' own interest," says Kurreck. Although animal testing appears indispensable in biomedicine, it is in fact quite unreliable. "90 percent of all drugs which appear promising in animal testing do not perform well in clinical trials with humans. This number is even higher for cancer drugs - 97%." The fact that animal research produces results that can be transferred to humans at all is in no small part thanks to the inventiveness of the researchers who skillfully plan such experiments. In the future, this creativity will need to be focused on experiments which use human cells directly.
The scientists at the new Einstein center have taken up this challenge. The center is not located at a single building but instead encompasses research groups at Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin, Freie Universität Berlin, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, as well as Technische Universität Berlin. It will also closely cooperate with the Berlin Institute of Health at the Charité, the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine, the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment, and the Robert Koch Institute. Six research and two cross-sectional projects on the colon, lungs, heart, brain, liver and neuromuscular connections are planned. Human cells will be at the foundation of all work.
"It is possible to grow organoids, for example, through cellular self-organization. However, our research group is printing the organ models," explains Kurreck. This also offers a unique feature within the center. The organ models are printed with a kind of bioink made up of human cells in a hydrogel. The ink is applied layer by layer through a nozzle and solidified by the addition of calcium ions. Another procedure uses a laser to solidify the ink, allowing the creation of particularly delicate structures such as braids of artificial veins. The result is a structure up to one square centimeter in size and one millimeter high that can also consist of different cell types. "For the first time this will allow a three-dimensional study of the interaction between, for example, living human liver cells and the cells of the surrounding blood vessels," continues Kurreck. The scientists are also developing a lung model to be used in a high security laboratory at the Charité or Freie Universität Berlin in research on coronaviruses.
When choosing an abbreviation for the new Einstein center for alternative methods in biomedical research, the researchers turned to the principles of ethical animal testing first proposed in 1959 by William Russel and Rex Burch: 3R. This stands for replacement of methods which use animals, reduction of the number of animals used, and refinement of the research conditions to increase the meaningfulness of the research and/or minimize animal suffering. The Einstein Center 3R (EC3R) will undergo an interim evaluation in 2024. The roughly 5.3 million euros provided by the State of Berlin until the end of 2026 will supplement the Einstein Foundation basic budget. "The research approach, structure, and network of the participating partners offer great potential in establishing Berlin as an important hub for research on alternative methods to animal research," said Professor Dr. Günter Stock, chairman of the board of the Einstein Foundation, on the occasion of the funding decision.