A UK project investigating the potential of stem cells to treat glaucoma and other eye diseases has bagged a £10,000 prize from the National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research (NC3RS).

Sponsored by GlaxoSmithKline, the NC3RS Prize for 2008 went to Dr Keith Martin and his colleague Thomas Johnson at the University of Cambridge’s Centre for Brain Repair. The researchers are looking at the potential of stem cells to protect vulnerable nerve cells in an injured retina. Until now, the NC3RS noted, the only way to understand the barriers to integration of the transplanted cells into the retina has been by injecting them into the eyes of anaesthetised laboratory animals.

“Using live animals, though still essential for some of our work, is time-consuming, potentially stressful to the animals, and requires large numbers to achieve reliable results,” Martin commented. A new technique developed by the University of Cambridge researchers allows tissue from a rat’s eye to be kept alive for 17 days. Stem cells can then be transplanted into the living tissue in a controlled environment and treatments evaluated for improved integration of the transplanted cells.

“We have shown that the cultured eye tissue remains healthy, maintains its layered architecture and retains the ability to make new proteins,” Martin noted. “The tissue also responds to stem cell transplantation in a similar way to the eyes of living animals.”

Not only that, but the new method meant an eight-fold reduction in the number of animals used for the experiment, as eight sections of tissue may be obtained from a single rat.

Presenting the £10,000 prize, MP Phil Willis, chair of the House of Commons Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Select Committee, said the work of Martin and Johnson “demonstrates graphically the value of engaging with the NC3RS and that science can be enhanced, not hindered, by considering animal welfare issues”.