Professor works to limit use of lab animals

By Matt Gunn

Published: Monday, October 26, 2009

Updated: Monday, October 26, 2009

Research being conducted at UT may one day eliminate the need for lab animals in the testing of products such as lotions, soaps and ointments.

Akira Takashima, professor and chair of the Department of Medical Microbiology and Immunology, received a $1 million grant from the National Institutes of Health last week to create a three-dimensional skin replica that would eliminate the need to use lab animals for toxicology testing.

Takashima’s research over the next two years will be funded by a total of $2.4 million that he brought in from federal stimulus money.

Although Takashima received the grant last week, the funding is part of the $789 billion stimulus bill that was enacted in February by the federal government.

“In Europe, the industry cannot test new chemicals on experimental animals; it’s banned. The EU made the change a few years ago,” Takashima said. ”Somebody has to develop another way. In the U.S., companies are still using experimental animals for skin toxicology testing. I’m sure the same change is going to follow in the U.S., I’d say in about four to five years. That’s why even cosmetic companies in the U.S. are beginning to move in the same direction.”

Takashima explained the process of making the replica of skin cells that he hopes will soon replace animal testing.

“We engineered each of the three cell types in the skin — keratinocytes, langerhans cells and fibroblast cells — in a collagen matrix. We engineered each of them to express some sort of fluorescent signal. Detecting the fluorescence of different colors we can estimate what kind of stress or what kind of signals the cells have received. We are then putting them in a three-dimension skin in more like a matrix.”

The use of red, green and yellow fluorescent signals, which signify different chemical reactions in the cells, will help scientists determine the effects the products will have on human skin, making the process “a very colorful experience,” Takashima said.

Though Takashima’s research to begin testing products on artificial cells was just funded last week, the cells he will be using in his research were developed at UT five to 10 years ago, he said. According to Takashima, the cells will divide forever.

“They divide every 16 hours. That is what we are doing now,” he said.

Out of 119 grant proposals coming from UT last year, the grant for Takashima’s research was one of only 24 that were accepted. Seventeen of the 24 grants came from UT’s College of Medicine.

“It’s a strong statement to the College of Medicine,” said Health Science Campus Provost Jeff Gold. “Faculty and students work hard to apply for these grants and they were rewarded with a healthy number of positive grant responses. We have not heard back on all of the grant proposals, and there is still a chance of getting more accepted.”

Gold said grant proposals like the one awarded to Takashima show the strong research interest and quality of research programs developed by the faculty and graduate students of the medical college.

“We are very proud of it,” he said.

“Because the program is to be funded by the NIH, any intellectual property resulting from the project will belong to the University of Toledo,” Takashima said. “UT will submit any patent applications listing me as the inventor. The cash will go to the school, and in turn maybe come to my lab.”

Gold said the grant Takashima received was given to help stimulate the economy.

“The university and the inventor will work together to find either a company to sell the idea to or to start our own company or license the technology,” he said. “Dr. Takashima holds many different patents. He is very experienced not only as a research scientist, but also [as an] entrepreneur. I’m sure there will be more patents and more intellectual property that the university and Dr. Takashima own that will result from this research.”

Takashima received his degree at Nagoya City University Medical School in Nagoya, Japan. He is also the Robert A. Stranahan Endowed Chair in the College of Medicine at UT.