International prize for cardiac modelling research

A new approach to computer modelling that has the potential to reduce the number of animals used in research, particularly in the safety assessment of new drugs, has won an international prize.

PhD student Mr Oliver Britton, working with Wellcome Trust Senior Research Fellow Professor Blanca Rodriguez at the University of Oxford, has won the NC3Rs 2014 3Rs Prize with research into the modelling of cardiac properties. It is the first time since the prize was launched in 2005 that it has been awarded to a PhD student.

Mr Britton’s winning paper describes using existing data to build a computer model of cardiac electrophysiology that incorporates variations in 'normal' heart properties that occur between individuals of the same species. Traditional modelling tends to ignore this, using averaged data instead. This new approach has the potential to make computer models that can more accurately identify drug compounds that could be toxic to the heart. Early identification would allow these compounds to be removed from the drug development pipeline before they reach the stage where regulatory animal studies are required. As confidence in the model grows, there could be potential for it to replace some in vivo studies altogether.

The computer model has also been developed into a user-friendly software package called Virtual Assay, which should increase industry uptake for use in drug safety testing, as it can be used without the need for specialist programming and modelling experience.

It is possible to use the modelling method to study variability in any biological system, increasing the potential of the model to reduce animal use.

Mr Oliver Britton, University of Oxford, said: "It's great to have our research recognised as having a potential impact on the 3Rs, and winning the prize helps with publicising our work to the audience who might be interested in it. We plan to use the prize grant to apply our methodology in neuroscience, specifically pain research in humans, through a collaboration we have developed with an industrial partner. We will investigate how variability between individuals alters the response of different types of pain-sensitive neurons to drugs."

Professor Ian Kimber OBE, 3Rs Prize panel chair, said: "Mr Britton’s paper really stood out to the panel because of the model’s potential as a replacement for early-stage animal tests in drug safety studies, across a broad range of disciplines. The model has also been developed into a piece of user-friendly software, encouraging uptake and use by industry, which could have an important impact on the reduction of animals in research."