A website where scientists can share data and computer models of cells, organs and whole organisms has been set up by a researcher from the University of Bath to help reduce the number of animals used in medical research.
Computer modelling is often cited as an effective way of reducing the number of animals used in research, but the reality is that current models are rarely complex or rigorous enough to replace animals in experiments.
By collecting together large numbers of these existing models and supporting data, Dr Chris Kirk, from the University’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, hopes that scientists around the world will be able to evolve increasingly complex computer models that could be used in experiments.
Dr Kirk came up with the idea after developing computer-based models of cell clusters as part of a research project on cell growth and nutrient diffusion. He realised that there must be dozens, perhaps hundreds, of such models in existence around the world, but there was no way of sharing them with others or allowing them to build together to represent even larger, more complex systems.
As a computer programmer, he realised that a model for bringing together information in this way already existed in an alternative computer operating system to Microsoft’s Windows.
The Linux system is freely available and allows programmers to add new computer codes to a centrally stored repository. They can then download the codes, improve them and share them with other programmers through the internet.
In the same way the new website, called ‘The Ark’, will provide researchers with a central repository where data, methodologies and codes of computer models of everything from simple biomolecular interactions to whole organism behaviour can be stored.
Scientists and computer programmers will be able to deposit new codes or concepts, improve them by adding new information and use others’ code in their own experiments. Experiments might consist of such things as testing the effect of therapeutic drugs or toxins on cells, growth and clustering in different environments and sensitivity analysis of different methodologies.
Dr Kirk concedes that the validation and acceptance of computer modelling in medical science remains some years away, but hopes that it will not be long before computer models can be used as a safe alternative to animals.
Kirk said: “Whilst producing effective computer models might be intractable, I believe that with effort we can eventually use them in place of much animal testing.“
The initiative has been warmly welcomed by many organisations working in this area, including the Fund for the Replacement of Animals in Medical Experiments (FRAME).
Professor Bob Combes, Director of FRAME, said: “FRAME very much welcomes the Ark website. Published information on alternatives is difficult to find and this new website will significantly help with this process and should be a useful tool for all those working in the field.”
The Ark website is hosted by the University of Bath at http://www.bath.ac.uk/mech-eng/ark/