Innovative Animal-Free Science

Have you ever dissected a lab rat or removed the beating heart of a frog in a classroom? For many, these experiences are vivid memories from their education. However, for today's life sciences students, animal experiments are becoming a relic of the past.

6 June 2024 3 minutes

At Utrecht University, students can now explore every layer of a rat’s anatomy through holograms, practice taking blood samples from a plastic pig’s brain, and conduct sophisticated internal examinations on a robot horse. These innovative methods offer new ways to learn about human and animal life without using live creatures.


World-Class Education

Every year, around 10 million animals are used for scientific purposes in Europe, with about 200,000 of these animals being used to educate and train future vets, doctors, researchers, and scientists. The importance of these professionals knowing their craft is undeniable, especially in critical situations like a dog running into the road or the need for life-saving medication.

However, animal pathology is not identical to human pathology, and a frog’s leg is far from a human leg. Alarmingly, nine out of ten drugs tested on animals fail in human clinical trials. What if there were a better way? A way that avoids unnecessary suffering and does not rely on laboratory animals as the standard?

From Virtual to Reality

Utrecht University is committed to pioneering animal-free innovations that not only enhance animal welfare but also improve education and scientific discoveries. For instance, rose petals and noodles are now used to practice delicate stitching techniques needed for procedures like open-heart surgery and are a popular teaching tool at the university.

Cutting-edge technologies such as organs-on-a-chip, organoids, and virtual humans are revolutionizing scientific education and research. “We must constantly ask ourselves: how can we best educate our students? Using laboratory animals is not the default answer,” says Professor Daniela Salvatori, an expert in Comparative Anatomy and Physiology at Utrecht University.

“We’ve developed three-dimensional and holographic models in collaboration with UMC Utrecht and computer scientists at Utrecht University. Learning 3D structures from 2D pictures in textbooks can be challenging. Virtual reality enhances spatial skills and allows students to practice as often as necessary.”

Creative Research Community

It’s not only students who benefit from these technologies. “Vets and surgeons can virtually practice on complex structures just before an operation, fostering life-long learning,” says Professor Salvatori.

In addition to her role at Utrecht University, Daniela leads TPI Utrecht, an interdisciplinary group dedicated to transitioning towards animal-free innovations. She aims to develop top-quality innovations that improve scientific research and education. Joining the Utrecht community, known as the Heart of Health, means becoming part of a creative network at the forefront of innovation. This community’s strong emphasis on knowledge sharing allows students, surgeons, researchers, PhDs, and investors to establish themselves as global innovators in Utrecht.

TPI Utrecht offers an in-house helpdesk that connects individuals with experts to answer their questions and organizes helpathons—interdisciplinary creative workshops designed to develop animal-free methods for specific research questions. The 3Rs Centre Utrecht, working closely with TPI Utrecht, also supports implementing animal-free methods in research.

At Utrecht University and beyond, there are endless opportunities to contribute to a healthier, more sustainable world.

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