The power of modelling: using maths to reduce animal experiments

This week in several corners of a very large conference room in London, groups of mathematicians and biologists are joining together for four days of intense problem solving. Anthony Holmes, NC3Rs Programme Manager, explains how this came about.


Today I’ve witnessed what can happen when you bring maths and life sciences together. Not just sharp minds, squeaky pens and whiteboards. But equations – and lots of them.

Cross-disciplinary problem solving has been around for some time. But this collaboration between NC3Rs and the EPSRC-funded Maths in Medicine Study Group (MMSG) is unique in the effort to address the 3Rs. It comes as a result of a £750k investment from the NC3Rs and EPSRC in four interdisciplinary grants to exploit the use of mathematical modelling for replacing animals in the testing of pharmaceuticals and chemicals in industry, where around 400,000 animals are used in the UK each year.

This week four distinct problems have been presented and brainstormed by teams of mathematicians and life scientists to gain new understanding, insights and some novel solutions:

  • Using mathematical modelling to optimise work flow in the Sanger Mouse Genetics Project – Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, Cambridge
  • Mathematical modelling of chronic drug infusion for toxicity assessment - University of Liverpool
  • Mathematical modelling of steroid responsiveness in severe asthma and COPD – Imperial College London
  • Modelling heart rate changes in the mouse as a system of delayed, weakly coupled oscillators – King’s College London

From PhD students to senior professors, more than 30 mathematicians from a range of institutes as far afield as the USA are combining their expertise to solve these 3Rs challenges.

Watching how they interact with the biologists and break down the biological processes into complex equations is fascinating. What’s more, the biologists are being forced to think about their research and what they know about their data in a way they’ve never had to before. And we’re already hearing that these interactions are leading to some interesting insights and new opportunities for applying these models in their labs over the coming weeks.

In this morning’s round-up presentations, Professor Ian Adcock, Imperial College London, who leads on the asthma problem, said: "This has not only given us a model that makes sense biologically, but provided us with things that we didn’t realise we needed to look at."

The Maths Study Group is the latest stage in a collaboration spanning almost three years. It all began in Strathclyde when NC3Rs staff attended the 2010 MMSG and presented a seminar on how maths can be applied to bring down the numbers of animals used in toxicity testing. The meeting sparked a great deal of interest and positive feedback, spurring the NC3Rs and MMSG to collaborate on a joint workshop to bring together toxicologists and mathematicians to highlight some of the key problems faced in toxicity testing, and the potential power of maths to explore and solve them. 

The energy and enthusiasm for this new cross-disciplinary partnership between maths and the biosciences grew. More collaborations, more research questions and a vital ingredient of funding from the NC3Rs and EPSRC has cemented this enthusiasm into action.

Reports from each group will be available for download from the NC3Rs website in the near future. 

Also in the news: 

Using mathematics to meet the challenge of reducing animal experiments

We have announced four new grants totalling nearly £750k for research to replace and reduce the use of animals in toxicity tests by using novel mathe...

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