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By Roger Highfield on

Using ‘virtual hearts’ to reduce Animal testing in medicine

Evidence that drug testing could one day be conducted in a computer rather than on animals has led to a team at the University of Oxford winning a major international prize.

Awarded by the National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research (NC3Rs), and sponsored by GSK, the prizewinning research was conducted by Dr Elisa Passini at the University of Oxford’s Department of Computer Science, with Janssen Pharmaceutica.

The winning paper describes a ‘drug trial’, where 62 drugs and reference compounds were tested at various concentrations in more than a thousand simulations of human heart cells.

Early prediction of possible heart problems is critical for drug development: around 40% of drugs that were withdrawn from the market between 2001 and 2010 had cardiovascular safety issues.

Their computer model predicted the risk that drugs would cause abnormal heart rhythms in patients with 89% accuracy. They compared these computer predictions with data obtained from previously-conducted comparable animal studies and found the animal research was less accurate (75%) than the computer predictions of how the drugs would behave in the body.

This ‘Virtual Assay’ software developed by the Oxford team opens the way for the estimated 60,000 animals used globally each year for this purpose can be reduced. A number of companies have already adopted the technology, and this is expected to grow.

Dr Passini works in the group of Dr Alfonso Bueno-Orovio and Professor Blanca Rodriguez, who said there was a longer-term ambition to develop the virtual assay based on heart cells into virtual organs. ‘We are already conducting in silico drug trials with whole ventricles (heart chambers) during heart attacks.”

Prof Rodriguez was one of the speakers at a recent event about ‘virtual humans’ at the Science Museum, where there was a premiere in the IMAX of a film about the potential of the virtual human project by Fernando Cucchietti and Guillermo Marin of the Barcelona Supercomputer Centre.

The virtual human event will be repeated on Saturday 9 June, 16.15-17.15 at the Cheltenham Science Festival with myself, Dr Ana Minchole of the Oxford team along with Dr Andrea Townsend-Nicholson and Prof Peter Coveney of University College London, where the €5 million CompBioMed Centre of Excellence in Computational Biomedicine is based.

Dr Vicky Robinson, Chief Executive of the NC3Rs, commented on the prizewinners: “This is more great work from the Oxford team which really highlights the massive potential for computer simulations to replace animal use.”

The research was funded by Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, the EU funded CompBioMed project, TransQST project, NC3Rs and Wellcome, which has also supported the Science Museum’s plans for the £24m Medicine Galleries (due to be completed next year) to showcase the extraordinary collection of Henry Wellcome.

Barcelona Supercomputing Centre (BSC) and the company Medtronic have signed a collaboration agreement to advance cardiac simulations in the Centre’s MareNostrum supercomputer and others worldwide as an alternative to animal testing or human clinical trials.