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Tackling neurodegenerative diseases with more human relevant research

One important obstacle to progress in the field of neurodegenerative diseases is the heavy reliance on animal models which are failing to capture key features of human biology and disease
Apr 28 2021

To mark Parkinson’s awareness month, the JRC has published a freely available knowledge base of non-animal models to advance research into neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.

Dementia affects over 8 million people in Europe and this figure is expected to double in 30 years. It is estimated that up to 10 million people suffer from Parkinson’s worldwide.

To make things worse, only a limited number of medicines are available to patients and these only treat symptoms rather than offering any cure.

With exceptionally high failure rates in drug development, research in the field of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s has come to a near standstill. One important obstacle to progress is the heavy reliance on animal models which are failing to capture key features of human biology and disease.

To promote more human relevant research, the JRC’s EU Reference Laboratory for alternatives to animal testing (EURL ECVAM) led a study to review advanced non-animal models used in the field of neurodegenerative diseases, specifically for Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.

Human-based models

The study has produced a freely available knowledge base describing 568 different models that can be used to investigate the underlying mechanisms leading to neurodegenerative diseases and to find new therapies. Complementing the knowledge base is an executive summary of the study and a technical report that details the findings and the methodology used.

Types of models reviewed are based on human derived cells and tissues cultured in the laboratory (in vitro), computer modelling and simulation (in silico), or cells and tissues explanted from patients (ex vivo).

"The knowledge base is very comprehensive but also very easy to use", according to Laura Gribaldo JRC scientist. "Apart from helping researchers to find human relevant models, the study clearly demonstrates the availability of scientifically advanced approaches that provide credible alternatives to outdated animal models."

Cutting edge technologies

Many promising in vitro models are based on 'induced pluripotent stem cells' that are generated in the lab by biochemically reprogramming adult cells, from human skin for example. These stem cells can replicate themselves indefinitely and can be converted into brains cells to study neurodegenerative diseases.

The JRC study also highlights the emergence of microfluidic devices. These work like a miniature lab-on-a-chip to analyse tiny volumes of patient material to identify specific biomolecules to monitor disease progression.

Many can benefit from the study results

Clearly, biomedical researchers can use the knowledge base to identify models and methods that can be adapted and applied to tackle their specific research questions. Educators can provide the latest information on the state-of-the-art to their students while funding bodies can consider trends, identify impactful research avenues and target promising areas for investment.

In addition, it is expected that the knowledge base will be of particular use to Competent Authorities in EU Member States to support the process of project evaluation, ensuring that project proposers have properly considered the use of non-animal models and methods in their research proposals.

One of a series

The JRC's EURL ECVAM is undertaking a series of studies to review non-animal models and methods in several disease areas. Reports are already available for respiratory diseases and breast cancer, and will shortly be followed by those for immune-oncology, autoimmunity, cardiovascular disease, and immunogenicity of advanced medicinal products. These particular areas have been selected based on disease incidence and prevalence, the reliance of related research on animal models, and the amount of animal procedures conducted.

As recently reported, in 2017 the EU used approximately 10 million animals in experimental procedures with about 70% of those being used for disease related research. As set out in Directive 2010/63/EU for the protection of animals for scientific purposes, the final goal of EU policy is the full replacement of animal experiments as soon as scientifically possible.

Read more

Executive summary

Technical report

JRC Data Catalogue

Life science research webpage