In English
18.5.2016

Experiments on a human body

Timo Marttila

The Finnish Centre for Alternative Methods in Tampere develops alternatives to animal testing. One vision is that cells could mimic an entire human body in the future. The University and state are committed to reducing animal testing, but Ficam’s funding is nonetheless unpredictable.

AINO HEIKKONEN text TIMO MARTTILA photos ILONA RYTILAHTI translation

The metal container looks like a big gas bottle. White vapour climbs out, as Laboratory Technician Sari Leinonen opens the lid.

Her hands are covered with long, blue laboratory gloves. The temperature in the container is -196˚C. Leinonen brings out a white rack and removes one tube. Swiftly, she closes the container, slips the tube in paper and starts walking to the laboratory. She scurries down the corridor vividly reminiscent of hospitals.

“The cells thaw in two minutes. In that space of time, the contents must be thawed and immersed in liquid. Otherwise, the cryoprotectant kills the cells”, Leinonen explains.

“Animal biology is different from human biology. Animal response doesn’t necessarily match a human’s response, which is demonstrated in the eight-percent success rate of pharmaceutical drug development.”

The cells are stored at the Finnish Centre for Alternative Methods at the University of Tampere. At Ficam, experts develop alternative methods for animal testing. The tube Leinonen is holding contains nearly a million endothelial cells, a human cell type that lines the interior surfaces of blood vessels. The cells in the tube were harvested from an umbilical cord.

To remove the cryoprotectant from the cells after thawing, they are diluted with liquid and placed in a rapidly spinning centrifuge. Then, the cells are grown in a medium that often contains sugars and vitamins. The cells are later used in research.

Ficam’s methods are based on cell and tissue culture. They use real human cells and tissues.

The centre was established in December 2008, and their motto is ‘better science’.

“Animal biology is different from human biology. Animal response doesn’t necessarily match a human’s response, which is demonstrated in the eight-percent success rate of pharmaceutical drug development. Ninety-two percent of drug candidates that reach clinical trial fail either due to poor efficacy or causing harmful effects in humans. These candidates will never make it to the market”, Director of Ficam Tuula Heinonen says.

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According to the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations, developing and marketing one pharmaceutical drug costs over 1 billion euros and may take up to 13 years.

The experts at Ficam believe that the use of human cells could boost research and development.

“A human is a human, not a mouse, not a rat, not a rabbit. This then begs the question of what use animal testing is at all”, Ficam’s Quality Assurance Expert Marika Mannerström points out.

 

A small plastic plate lies on the table. It has holes the size of a fingertip and it is called a multiwell plate. Each well holds clear liquid barely visible to the eye. Apart from endothelial cells, the wells contain adipose stem cells. Doctoral student Outi Huttala studies tissues composed of several cell types. The plan is to create a cell research model that would better mimic a human body.

“I took a course on animal testing. That was enough. I wouldn’t want to do tests on animals.”

“A human body doesn’t have just one type of cell isolated from the rest. That is why different cell types are needed, to create a more natural culture environment. The reaction of the cells would mimic the reaction in a human body, and pharmaceutical testing could then be more accurate.”

Huttala reflects that cell research could benefit patient care, guiding it towards a more tailored approach. Take cancer drugs, for example. Not all patients have an identical response to them.

“At some point, a patient’s cells could be tested in hospital to find out the drug best suited to the patient.”

The angiogenesis model Huttala uses in her research was developed at Ficam. The model can be used to develop drugs that prevent the formation of blood vessels. For example, new cancer drugs prevent blood vessel formation, which again thwarts cancer growth.

The angiogenesis model has been validated, meaning that it has been tested by two employees who have received the same results on three different occasions. At the moment, Ficam is developing a cardiovascular model that could partly replace the use of dogs in research on the cardiac effects of chemicals.

Huttala started at Ficam as a Master’s thesis student in 2011. Three years later in 2014, she began her doctoral thesis. She applied to Ficam because unlike in basic research, Ficam develops ready-to-use products to profit others. For example, the drug and chemical industry can benefit from Ficam’s tests. Another reason for her joining the centre was ethics.

“I took a course on animal testing. That was enough. I wouldn’t want to do tests on animals.”

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Laboratory Technician Sari Leinonen says the work at Ficam is extremely meticulous. She mostly works with cell culture.

 

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