University of Ulster science info-sharing project may help curb animal tests

Ulster 30 August 2006Researchers at the University of Ulster (UU) are taking part in a Europe-wide scientific partnership aimed at reducing the extent of scientific testing using animals. The university's Systems Biology Research Group is partnering eight other universities, institutes and companies in a 2,8 million euro European Commission initiative to build a data bank of information about a key aspect of research which is usually gleaned from animal tests.

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The project will record, store and make available findings and predictions about levels of toxic harm of chemicals including many in everyday use in homes, shops, offices and other workplaces. A major aim of the project, co-ordinated by the University of Warsaw, will be that firms making items such as medicines, tablets, cosmetics or weed-killer, will have easy computer access to information and forecasts about the toxicity of chemical compounds.

That, in turn, could lead to a cut in animal testing, since researchers will no longer have to duplicate experiments and could use the computer models to forecast properties of a new compound instead.

Research Fellow Mathilde Romberg, UU's chief researcher on the project, stated: "Chemical components influence our life in a multitude of ways - from drugs, new materials, fertilisers to cosmetics. It is essential to our well-being that we know about the properties of all these substances, whether they could do harm to our environment and, directly or indirectly, to humans."

The project, Chemomentum, pools the work of other experts in Estonia, France, Germany, Italy and Switzerland. The intention is to develop a computer software system that will provide manufacturers and industrial pharmacists with vital information, especially the level of toxicity, about ingredients they may be developing for use in a new product.

Ms. Romberg stated: "The toxicity of a compound is important for judging its harmfulness or also, in the context of drugs, its effectiveness. For instance, in the development process of a new drug to combat cancer, one looks for components which kill the specific type of cancer cells but leave other cells unaffected. The production of compounds used, say, for flavouring food or for removing weeds from your patio also has to involve strict evaluation of their toxic effects. Most of the testing involved the use of animals."

Ms. Romberg, who holds an Master of Science in Informatics from Aachen University of Technology in Germany, is leading research on UU's component in the project - the compilation of one of the workpackages on knowledge-base and data management. She is a specialist in applying Grid computing to computational biology. Grid computing is an evolving new technology which employs a combination of huge computation, massive data input and widespread collaborative systems to tackle grand-scale problems. Experts say the enormous potential of computer Grids is likely to transform computer power available to the individual.

"Chemomentum involves connecting already-available data from experiments to develop the mathematical prediction models, and also computational resources for the different calculations", she explained. "Based on methods from distributed and Grid computing, a user-friendly system will be developed to help the chemical industry and European regulatory bodies to evaluate the substances and assess related risks, with fewer and fewer animal tests."

More information is available at the Chemomentum project Web site.


Leslie Versweyveld

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