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Virtual Fish in Development for Environmental Toxin Testing

Rainbow trout

Rainbow trout (

13 March 2014. Researchers at Plymouth University in the U.K. and the pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca are developing a technique to gauge potential toxic effects of chemicals in rivers and oceans using cells from fish configured into a testing device. The three-year, £600,000 ($998,000) project of biologist Awadhesh Jha with colleagues from Plymouth and AstraZeneca is funded by U.K. science funding agencies Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and Natural Environmental Research Council, as well as AstraZeneca.

The research aims to solve the need for a practical and ethical way to test for potential toxicity of chemicals in bodies of water on fish populations, while minimizing the number of fish caught and sacrificed for testing. Tests with individual cells or tissue grown in the lab from fish are possible, but limited in scope and do not offer an accurate picture of the impact of chemicals on entire organisms.

The university cites statistics from the U.K. government showing in 2011 some 59,000 live fish were used in toxicology studies in the U.K. The EU adopted rules in 2010 limiting the use of live animals in scientific research, to which the U.K. subscribes, thus the need for alternative methods reducing the use of animals in research studies.

Jha with colleagues at Plymouth and AstraZeneca already succeeded in extracting liver cells from rainbow trout and collecting the cells in a three-dimensional sphere that offers a limited model for testing the effects of chemicals on fish. Even with only liver cells, Jha reports the device maintains basic biochemical functions and metabolizes relevant contaminants. The fish-cell spheres have an additional advantage in that they last longer than cell or tissue samples, thus allowing for more detailed tests.

In the new project, the Plymouth-AstraZeneca team will attempt to extend the sphere’s functions to include cells from other parts of the fish, such as the gut and gills, to better represent the entire organism. If successful, the new testing device — a form of “virtual fish” — is expected to sharply reduce the number of fish needed for toxicity tests.

“Since billions of cells from several different organs can be harvested from a single fish,” says Jha in a university statement, “it means that far fewer fish will be used in research, and those that are will not be used directly in experiments.”

The research is also expected to lead to a better basic understanding of fish biology. “This project will provide a unique understanding of the mechanisms, biochemical characteristics, and extent of functionality of fish gill, gut, and liver tissues both in life and in culture,” Jha adds.

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