How a Dutch university is pioneering alternatives to lab animals

Utrecht University is expanding its longtime commitment to animal-free innovations as its faculties work on groundbreaking scientific discoveries and teaches the next generation of researchers

For centuries animal research has led to life-saving drugs, vital new medical treatments, even today’s COVID-19 vaccines.

But the use of animals in research and education has become more controversial in recent decades. As technology has helped scientists find new ways to work, Utrecht University (UU) in the Netherlands is pioneering efforts to find and implement innovative alternatives to laboratory animals.

From new approaches in classrooms and labs to high-tech solutions and conversations among faculty, UU is expanding its longtime commitment to animal-free innovations.

It’s the right thing to do, said Daniela Salvatori, a professor of comparative anatomy and physiology in UU’s Faculty of Veterinary Medicine and leader of one of UU’s newest animal-free initiatives.

“If you think about it, you live with animals, and you see that they are now part of your life,” Salvatori said. “For any human being, it’s quite a confronting thing to kill animals.”

High-tech, animal-free solutions such as VR are utilized.

The rise of animal-free science 

Scientists have been experimenting on vertebrate animal species as far back as the ancient Greeks. And no wonder: Many mammals are ideal test subjects for new drugs and medical procedures because they are so similar to humans. 

But opposition to killing and wounding animals in the name of science has existed for almost as long. More recently, public interest groups and even celebrities have raised awareness of animal welfare. Governments have restricted animal usage. And recent studies suggest the vast majority of drugs tested on animals don’t work as expected in humans. 

The European Union first restricted animal usage in the 1980s. The Dutch government took the boldest step yet in 2016 when it announced it intended to phase out all legally required toxicity tests on animals by 2025 and become a world leader in animal-free innovations. It later formed TPI — Transition Programme for Innovation without the use of animals — a coalition of organizations from government, academia and the private sector, to speed the transition to animal-free technologies. 

UU’s commitment to reducing animal use 

Long before the Dutch government took action, UU — founded in the 17th century and now with more than 30,000 students — had committed itself to animal-free science. 

Since the 1980s, UU has promoted what animal welfare proponents call the Three Rs — to replace, reduce and refine the use of animals in teaching and research. The veterinary school is home to the 3Rs-Centre, which promotes the Three Rs in research and education. 

UU’s latest animal-free initiative is TPI Utrecht, inspired by the Dutch national TPI effort. 

Formed in 2019, TPI Utrecht is an interdisciplinary group of ambassadors from UU, University Medical Center Utrecht — the academic hospital affiliated with the university — and the University of Applied Sciences Utrecht. The working group members share knowledge and technical expertise with each other and the public and find innovative ways to teach and do research without animals. 

TPI Utrecht runs a helpdesk that connects faculties, students and citizens with team members and experts who can answer questions about animal-free approaches. TPI Utrecht also conducts "helpathons" that let researchers seek advice from colleagues on animal-free methods for their own research projects. 

"It's another way of thinking about things. It's a paradigm shift," said Salvatori, the chairperson of TPI Utrecht since 2020. "What we are trying to do is to bring the community together to share the best methods that already exist and also develop methods that are animal-free."

UU employs high-tech solutions 

Since 2001, faculties at UU and UMC Utrecht have reduced animal use by more than 60 percent. Last year, researchers at the two institutions performed about 20,000 animal experiments, of which around 3,200 were for education purposes. Those numbers represent a small fraction of the roughly 400,000 animal procedures done annually across The Netherlands. 

Right now, researchers and educators at both institutions are working on exciting projects that have brought those numbers down — and could reduce animal usage even more in future years: 

  • Juliette Legler, a professor of toxicology in UU's Faculty of Veterinary Medicine and a TPI Utrecht team member, is leading a project to develop the world's first virtual human platform to test the safety of chemicals and pharmaceutical drugs without using lab animals. The project has received funding of more than €11 million. 
  • Hanneke Willemen, a molecular biologist at UMC Utrecht, is using human stem cells modified to act as sensory neurons in her research on chronic pain. These altered cells in a petri dish have been used to test new pain medications and hold promise for relieving the crippling joint pain caused by arthritis. 
  • In his microsurgery classes, Bart van der Zwan, a professor of vascular neurosurgery at UMC Utrecht, has replaced rats and pigs used for suturing training with boiled rice noodles and flower petals. He says these substitutes are cheaper and easier than using animals. 
  • Animal Welfare Body Utrecht, which is responsible for animal welfare at UU and UMC Utrecht, launched a project to find homes for unneeded lab mice and rats. AWB director Wim de Leeuw — he’s also a member of TPI Utrecht — says the program has encouraged researchers to breed fewer lab animals. 
  • UMC Utrecht and UU's Faculty of Veterinary Medicine are training students in clinical skills with realistic anatomical, pathological and physiological models created from donated human and animal bodies. Using special techniques involving hard and soft plastics, UU’s Centre of Excellence for Plastination and Virtual Reality makes detailed, durable and reusable bodies and body parts.

In the classroom 

All Dutch university students who work with animals must take a class on laboratory animal science. UU has offered instruction in animal welfare and the Three Rs since 1986, making it the longest-running course of its kind in Europe.  

Salvatori, through her leadership role with TPI Utrecht, took this approach a step further. She developed a master’s-level elective course that focuses solely on different aspects of animal-free research and innovation. Salvatori hopes eventually to create a similar course for bachelor students, professionals and for undergraduates.  

"The students I've talked to in the past five years are very different from the students of 20 years ago," Salvatori said. "They are much more into sustainability. (They say) 'Animals are part of our world and our lives. How do we ethically go on with animals? How do we proceed with this? What choices can we make?' 

"I do believe it is important to give the students the possibility to think about this well in advance." 

A Netflix for animal avatars 

A veterinary pathologist by training, Salvatori traditionally has used animals to teach her students. With the help of UU’s tech specialists and UMC Utrecht, she has created the Avatar Zoo — 3D holographic models for animal-free study of animal anatomy, physiology and pathology as well as surgical techniques.  

Users simply drop a cell phone into a virtual-reality headset, then use their hands or voices to control the hologram. Not only can Salvatori use fewer animals in her classes, students also can visit the Avatar Zoo as often as they want — and without having to come to campus. 

Currently available are models of mice and rats and a module that trains aspiring vets to perform a common sterilization practice known as an ovariectomy in dogs. The Avatar Zoo definitely has promise: It won the €25,000 first prize in April in a new Dutch animal-free venture challenge. 

Eventually, Salvatori hopes to develop holograms for a range of animals, from horses to fish. "We would like to create a Netflix of avatar animals," Salvatori said. "That is my dream." 

What’s next? 

Salvatori said the use of animals in research and instruction probably will continue for the foreseeable future, whether due to habit or because no viable alternatives yet exist. 

But UU and UMC Utrecht have increasingly made use of existing high-tech animal-free methods, such as cell cultures, sophisticated computer models and organs-on-a-chip that mimic the functions of organs and organ systems. 

Animal-free innovations have come a long way at UU, Salvatori said. But there’s much more to be done.  

“I think that in biology and basic life sciences and for certain disciplines like anatomy and physiology the use of animals is obsolete,” Salvatori said. “Virtual reality and videos and dummies can be used very nicely. There are a lot of scientific articles proving this. We should also stimulate educators to make this switch when it’s possible.” 

How can institutions help?  

Universities looking to promote animal-free innovations can do exactly what UU did. 

In 2019, Salvatori said, senior leaders at UU created TPI Utrecht to let faculty hold conversations around animal-free innovations. They also made money available to create the graduate course on animal-free research alternatives. 

Scientists are under a lot of pressure these days, Salvatori said. An initiative such as TPI Utrecht provides busy faculty a valuable chance to reflect on their work and to serve as a resource for other UU faculty. 

UU’s senior leaders, Salvatori said, “created a safe place within the university to be able to discuss this.”

This content was sponsored and provided by Utrecht University . The editorial staff of Inside Higher Ed had no role in its preparation.