The funding will support five research projects to increase the utility of a broad spectrum of imaging techniques, including bioluminescence, radio labelling and implantable technology. The projects aim to extend the use of imaging technologies in applications not currently possible with a view to improving animal research, for example by using non-invasive imaging, which minimises suffering, or longitudinal imaging throughout the study, which reduces the number of animals required.
The strategic funding from the National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research (NC3Rs), in collaboration with the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), follows the identification of eight key technology challenges by leading researchers in the imaging field, which once overcome will enable preclinical imaging to both meet the needs of the bioscience sector and impact on the 3Rs.
Included in the funding is a project at the University of Nottingham that will utilise near-infrared quantum dots, a type of fluorescent marker, to improve sensitivity and resolution when imaging cancer cells in mice. The technology would overcome the current difficulties associated with imaging at a deep-tissue level, and enable repeat imaging of the same animal over time.
This non-invasive technique would also improve experimental relevance by allowing patient-derived xenografts to be implanted at the original tumour site, rather than below the skin – a practice which facilitates easy imaging but which is not representative of most human cancers, and so less effective at predicting whether a potential drug will fail in the clinic. Researchers estimate that the refined pre-clinical cancer models made possible by this new imaging technique could reduce animal use in cancer studies by approximately 170,000 per year.
Commenting on the awards, Dr Vicky Robinson, Chief Executive of the NC3Rs, said:
“The potential for technological development to replace, reduce and refine the use of animals in science is now well recognised across the research community. Preclinical imaging offers an opportunity for researchers to greatly reduce and refine animal use through longitudinal studies and identifying earlier endpoints to reduce suffering. However its application is often restricted by limitations with the current technologies available. This strategic funding allows the NC3Rs to target key areas identified by the research community where the development and application of new imaging techniques could have a profound impact on animal use and science.”
Professor Philip Nelson, Chief Executive of the EPSRC, which co-funded £500k of the funding call, said:
“We are delighted to support the NC3Rs. This research builds on our previous collaboration in mathematical modelling in toxicology as well as drawing on and advancing the UK’s first class capability in imaging technologies.”