"You don’t need laboratory animals to test whether drugs have epilepsy as a side effect"

During her Biomedical Sciences degree, she decided that she did not want to support animal procedures, so she stopped buying cosmetics that were tested on laboratory animals. She also looked for a job that involved using as few laboratory animals as possible. Neurotoxicologist Anke Tukker is currently working on a model that will make it possible to test the safety of drugs without lab rats, using brain cells transformed from skin cells on a chip.

Portretfoto Anke Tukker, neurotoxioloog
Anke Tukker

The young researcher (34) is keen to talk about her research and does so in ‘normal’ human language. This recently earned her the Hugo van Poelgeest audience award, for which she and two other researchers had been nominated. “That's fantastic, of course,” was her response from her new home country of America when she heard the news. “I actually appreciate an audience award even more than the main prize. It shows how important it is for people to understand what I’m doing, especially if it’s financed with public money.” 

Among other things, the audience award consisted of 500 euros and a professional photo shoot. “I think I'll spend the money on dinner with the Dutch research team, as soon as this becomes possible again. The professional photo shoot will have to wait until I can actually travel to the Netherlands.”

“It’s fantastic that I won the audience award, of course. It shows how important it is for people to understand what kind of research I do, especially if it is financed with public money.”

More money for research

Anke emigrated to America two-and-a-half months ago to continue working on animal-free research at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. “It's strange to move in the middle of a pandemic, because everything is closed here and I’m working from at home – just like the people in the Netherlands. I was offered a number of jobs in America and chose this lab to continue working on my animal-free research.” 

“The Netherlands is very innovative when it comes to regenerative medicine without the use of laboratory animals. In America, on the other hand, far more money is available for research, and universities raise a lot more funds here. As a result, young researchers who are still at the beginning of their careers can do a lot more.”

Triggering an epileptic seizure

At Utrecht University, Anke worked on a model that makes it possible to test the safety of drugs without using lab rats. "We are investigating the harmfulness of substances on human nerve cells on a chip that predicts the risk of an epileptic seizure. Sometimes, drugs can trigger an epileptic fit. Laboratory animals are currently used to test this beforehand. We are proving that this can also be done differently, without animal procedures. For this purpose, blood or skin cells are taken from a volunteer, reprogrammed into brain cells and cultivated on a chip.”

“The longer you grow the cells and keep them on the chip, the longer and more complex the structure becomes. It’s fascinating to see. The connections get more and more dense, and it ends up looking a bit like the A10 motorway with all the branches that run around Amsterdam. There is also some criticism of our research, because we only look at brain cells on the chip. The human brain is of course much larger, and our brains are protected by a blood-brain barrier that is not on the chip. This blood-brain barrier forms the boundary between the brain and the rest of the body. Rats do have this barrier. The solution would be to add a blood-brain barrier to my model. I'd love it if we could do that. This research also allows us to examine very specific mutations and the effect of medicine on that group of patients.”

“Sometimes, drugs can trigger an epileptic seizure. Laboratory animals are currently used to test this beforehand. We are proving that this can also be done differently, without animal procedures.”

Opportunities for innovation

The researcher can certainly identify many opportunities for innovation that will help reduce the use of laboratory animals, although she believes it will be long after 2030 before all research is free of laboratory animals. “I understand that we need to work on a transition towards using fewer laboratory animals right now. I hope that a future without laboratory animals will soon be possible, and I also think I will experience that time myself, but it will certainly take another 20 to 30 years.” 

She feels that the current situation around COVID-19 certainly offers opportunities in terms of animal-free research. “At the same time, it is also a threat, because all the money that is now going into accelerated research to combat COVID-19 will not be available for other research.”

More information

Watch Anke Tukker's film on the Utrecht University website here.