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£2.7m challenge set to replace use of dogs in drug testing

  • The NC3Rs has announced the £2.7m ‘Virtual Second Species’ challenge – as part of its CRACK IT Challenges competition – to devise innovations to replace the use of dogs in some drug toxicity tests.
  • The challenge encourages innovators to develop digital models that use dog study data to predict adverse effects of the drug in dogs, delivering cost benefits while improving animal welfare.
  • The NC3Rs is using the free-to-use konfer platform developed by the National Centre for Universities and Business (NCUB), to reach over 150,000 academics and innovators at the UK’s world-leading universities. 

The National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research (NC3Rs), a konfer-featured organisation dedicated to improving research animal welfare and reducing the use of animals in research and testing, is challenging tech innovators to create ‘virtual dogs’ which scientists can use to predict the adverse effects of drugs before their first use in humans.

The £2.7m ‘Virtual Second Species’ challenge forms a part of the ‘NC3Rs CRACK IT Challenges’ competition, established to fund collaborative R&D to deliver products or services for the bioscience sector to revise their use of animals.

The competition is delivered in partnership with eTransafe – an Innovative Medicines Initiative (IMI) collaboration – and Simomics Ltd, supported by sponsors Bayer AG, Eli Lilly and Company, Genentech Inc., Gilead Sciences Inc., GSK, Merck Healthcare KGaA and Roche.

The NC3Rs is encouraging innovators to develop models that use advanced mathematical modelling and machine learning approaches and years of accumulated dog study data to predict the unexpected and detrimental effects of drugs on human health, particularly in major organs.

With 2,082 experiments in the UK using dogs as part of their testing in 2020, the NC3Rs invites tech innovators to devise alternative testing methods. Currently, regulation requires drugs to be tested in two species to monitor for issues: a rodent, such as a rat, followed by a non-rodent, such as a dog.

This method is not always indicative of the adverse effects that will be detected in humans, leading to wasted animal lives, time, and money.

Innovations that result from the challenge will deliver significant cost benefits for industry (with typical studies involving animals costing more than £500k) while increasing the speed of decisions for safe drugs, reducing testing and failed drug development projects.

The NC3Rs works with NCUB through the free-to-use konfer platform, making use of its AI-powered smart-matching technology for targeted, efficient, and cost-effective engagement with research and innovation partners across the UK. This technology has enabled the organisation to develop research and innovation partnerships with universities and across the innovation ecosystem.

Alongside the ‘Virtual Second Species’ challenge, the konfer platform is currently showcasing the NC3Rs ‘SAFE’ challenge, set up to replace environmental risk assessments which determine the impact of drugs on animals within ecosystems. The NC3Rs is seeking innovators to develop cell-based approaches to ascertain a chemical’s environmental impact without the use of fish. The £800k challenge, sponsored by AstraZeneca, Bayer AG and Unilever, with co-funding from DEFRA and the Environment Agency, and supported by Challenge Partners the Health and Safety Executive, is set to run alongside the ‘Virtual Second Species Challenge’ with a deadline for initial applications of October 28th 2021.

Dr Anthony Holmes, Director of Science and Technology at the NC3Rs: “We are excited to be using konfer to connect with the UK’s leading innovators and academics. As we seek to shift the paradigm of the use of dogs in drug testing, we’re keen to make use of the large amounts of dog study data within pharmaceutical companies to create a virtual dog to determine drug toxicities. Konfer’s smart-matching technology offers a speedy, cost-effective route to collaboration, and we look forward to working alongside the UK’s brightest minds to tackle an acute issue in drug development.”

Dr Joe Marshall, Chief Executive Officer at NCUB: “As the government pursue their vision of making the UK a global hub for innovation by 2035, it is important that we simplify collaboration between universities and businesses. The NC3Rs ‘Virtual Second Species’ Challenge is a prime example of meaningful and game-changing innovation, addressing the major matter of animal testing that continues to persist even today.

It is our hope that by making it easier for organisations such as the NC3Rs and academics to find each other, we can facilitate the creation of productive, innovative and of course, meaningful coalitions that will improve lives.”

In the area of bioscience and biotechnology, konfer identifies 14 collaboration opportunities, 4,800 experts, 304 businesses, 1,033 research projects and 9,501 publications.

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