The UK’s National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals (NC3Rs) in Research has chosen asthma as its first priority area for the development of new experimental models in health research.

The NC3Rs has issued a call for research proposals addressing new preclinical models of asthma with improved scientific and clinical relevance as well as reduced reliance on the use of animals and/or improved animal welfare. The joint initiative with Asthma UK has a budget of £500,000, with grants available to UK-based senior researchers for periods of up to three years.

The call follows on from a joint workshop held in November 2009 by the NC3Rs and the Medical Research Council (MRC) on Animal models of asthma: value, limitations and opportunities for alternative approaches. It complements MRC research initiatives on inflammation and immunity, the NC3Rs noted.

There are 5.4 million people receiving treatment for asthma in the UK and this number continues to increase, the Centre points out. Current therapies fail to control symptoms in 10-20% of people with the disease, and especially in cases of severe asthma, which accounts for half of all associated health costs.

Only two new classes of asthma drug have made it into the clinic in the last 50 years, “despite considerable effort and investment in this area”, the NC3Rs comments. “It is clear from the scientific literature and the discussions at the workshop that current preclinical models of asthma are not sufficiently predictive of the human condition, and this has contributed to the paucity of novel drugs.”

Recent advances in non-animal technologies such as tissue engineering, bioreactor design and in silico modelling may offer fresh approaches that address the limitations of current asthma models, the Centre suggests. While in vivo models of asthma continue to be important, “improving animal welfare is essential”, it adds.

The research call is for innovative and multidisciplinary approaches that enhance knowledge of the mechanistic basis of asthma and/or improve the design of new therapeutics.

“This is a unique and exciting opportunity for collaboration between in vivo and in vitro scientists, and academia and industry to develop the next generation of asthma research models,” the NC3RS said. The deadline for submissions under the call is 14 April 2010.