A lab rat -- created in the lab

Apr 13, 2010
These are fat cells (dyed orange) produced in a lab setting by Prof. Amit Gefen. Credit: AFTAU

It's illegal for health products with medical formulations to be accepted by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration without tests on animals -- a situation that has serious ethical and moral implications. New research in the field of tissue engineering by Prof. Amit Gefen of Tel Aviv University's Faculty of Engineering holds a promise that far fewer lab animals will be needed for the necessary experimental trials.

Dr. Gefen's research into , published in a recent issue of , has led him to conclude that the necessary tissue can be produced from fat, skin, bone and . His breakthrough study could have hundreds of applications in the pharmaceutical and medical world.

"Drugs make our lives better, and basic science is needed to push new drugs through clinical trials. But there is no doubt that an untold number of animals are sacrificed in the laboratory setting -- both in basic research and in applied conditions when testing particular molecules," says Prof. Gefen, who heads TAU's Teaching Laboratory for Cell and Tissue Engineering. As a medical researcher himself, he was dependent on animal trials for testing new hypotheses he developed for living systems ― until recently.

A more efficient road to scientific research

Bridging the worlds of biology and engineering, Prof. Gefen is now using adult rat stem cells ― cells that can be stimulated to create skin, bone, fat and muscle tissue from an animal in a laboratory setting. In his own work on studying the mechanical properties of pressure ulcers, many tissue replications were needed. His new approach no longer requires the sacrifice of large numbers of animals. When an experiment is over, not one animal life has been lost.

The use of engineered tissues, says Prof. Gefen, may also be more scientifically efficient than using those from a living source. "The model we've created offers a very reliable method for researchers asking questions about basic science, and those investigating new drugs. We can injure tissue in a very controlled environment and grow muscle tissue without blood vessels, thereby neutralizing certain variables that often cloud what's happening in an experiment."

Saving lives and improving research at the same time

Though Prof. Gefen's method may not completely eliminate the need for animal testing, as few as 5% of the animals used today will need to be sacrificed in future tests, he predicts.

"It's a matter of proportion. Our tools spare an enormous number of lives," Prof. Gefen says. He is currently bringing together a number of discrete research directions from the separate fields of mechanics, tissue engineering and biology. He is also developing a new tool for researchers to investigate fat accumulation in cells (an important question for diabetes researchers) and weight loss drugs. Among his devices is one that can tell doctors how much mechanical stress is being placed on a person's foot, buttocks or other soft tissues. Another measures how much sensation is left in a diabetic limb. For all these approaches, Prof. Gefen has adopted tissue engineering methods to use fewer animals in his trials.

"We are now able to build a number of 'simplified' living tissues quite readily, and we're able to keep them 'alive,'" Prof. Gefen says. "They're genetically similar to the biological tissue of the animal, so we can factor out irrelevant physiological elements such as bleeding and pain response in an experiment. The fact that this tissue is genetically identical and the environmental factors are so well-controlled means that we can obtain far more experimental reproducibility than with experiments done on live animals."

In the future, Prof. Gefen hopes that similar models can be based on live human tissue, but that could be a number of years down the road.

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LariAnn
5 / 5 (2) Apr 13, 2010
I wonder how long before religious zealots will decide that living human tissue in a petri dish constitutes a "human being" and thus cannot be used in research. After all, they already think a single cell or small group of cells (diploid, just like the living human tissue cells in culture) is a "human being" just because they arose from the fusion of two haploid cells (gametes). Thus, following this point of view, experimenting on diploid cell cultures in vitro would be considered the same as experimenting on humans.
moj85
1.5 / 5 (2) Apr 13, 2010
LariAnn I think your argument falls a little bit flat when you consider the future of the cells in question. Dipload cells from gametes have the potential to form a living human being. The cells created in the petri dish are not the same cells (pluripotent progenitor cells) as the gametes, because they cannot form an entire human being. Although, to be honest, saying that the only reason they are different is their potential is a little bit of a lame argument. But there you are!