£250k prize offered to encourage human toxicology breakthrough

A £250k prize is being offered to encourage researchers to deliver a breakthrough in toxicology research that could ultimately lead to the replacement of animals used in product safety testing.

The “Black Box” prize is offered by the cosmetics company Lush, which hopes to stimulate an international research focus on describing human toxicology pathways - the cellular chain of events that follow when a toxic chemical first interacts with cells in the body - and the development of assays and computational tools to identify whether or not chemicals trigger these pathways and cause adverse effects.

Dr Kelly BéruBé [correct], Director of the Lung & Particle Research Group at Cardiff University’s School of Bioscience and one of the Lush Prize judges, is a keen advocate of using human cells for toxicity research. An internationally renowned expert in air pollution and human health, she spent much of her early career conducting her research using animal models, but says it was only when she switched to using cultured human cells and tissues some ten years ago that her research results became truly meaningful.  

“I’m particularly interested in understanding how pollutants compromise lung biochemistry and alter gene and protein expression to drive disease mechanisms,” she says. “It was only through using human tissue that I started to get the answers that had been eluding me. We’ve been able to take stem cells from donated human lung tissue and rebuild bronchial epithelial cultures, effectively creating miniature 3-D lung cell cultures, around the size of a pea. From one donation of, say 500,000 cells, I can make around 400 Micro-Lungs™. My research has advanced beyond belief in just a few years of using these human lung cells.  

“To me there’s no doubt that generating more robust and relevant research results based on knowledge of human toxicology pathways could have significant impact on the speed and cost of translating basic research into patient benefit.  The research community has got stuck in a rut of using a test model that we know doesn’t really fit the bill at all – and that the public is generally uncomfortable with us using - because regulatory bodies insist on using animals.  I think it’s time to develop innovative solutions to these challenges that can really help to change this culture.”

The £250k Prize will be offered to a research team that fully elucidates and describes a human toxicity pathway, with experimental evidence to demonstrate all the links in the pathway from the first interaction of one or more chemical molecules to the full effects at the cellular level.

“Whilst a full elucidation of some toxicity pathways is close – for example for direct carcinogens and for skin sensitising chemicals, the Black Box award is likely to need a large collaborative effort, involving a raft of new and emerging models and techniques that bring together components to answer different aspects of one question,” says Dr BéruBé. “It’s a tough ask, and that’s reflected in the size of the Prize, which is a serious amount of money.”

Lush’s business model is well-known for its animal-free testing ethos and the Lush Prize was conceived as a pragmatic endeavour to encourage the delivery of alternatives to animal models.  Run in partnership with the Ethical Consumer Research Association, this is the second year that the Lush Prize has been offered, and Lush has committed to offering the Black Box prize for a minimum of five years.  Research published from up to three years prior to entry is eligible. For further information, please see http://www.lushprize.org/prize-categories/black-box-prize/

If the Black Box prize is not awarded in any one year, the £250k is split equally across several categories - including Science, Young Researcher and Training awards - to reward innovative scientists and initiatives that are working towards the replacement of animal testing.  Winners of the 2012 categories included researchers from the European Commission Joint Research Centre in Italy; the Institute for In Vitro Sciences and Johns Hopkins University in the USA; the University of Copenhagen, and Aston University, UK.





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