The Lush Young Researcher Prize aims to recognise and reward those working to eliminate animal testing in science and cosmetics through their research. Giorgia Pallocca, a PHD student at the University of Konstanz, has won one of this year’s 13 prizes for her research into toxicity testing in relation to fetal development.
Toxicity testing is a very complex process, one element of which is testing chemicals for their effects on foetuses. While a chemical may not have an effect on a pregnant mother, it could impair fetal development in the womb, so must be tested to ensure it does not do so.
Giorgia’s research focuses on testing the effects of environmental pollutants and clinical drugs on babies in the womb, specifically the effect substances have on the neural crest - a collection of cells that are crucial to human development. These cells must be able to move through the embryo freely so they can develop into other, vital cells in the body, such as sensory neurons. Interferences with this process are known to lead to severe abnormalities and diseases in newborns.
So, to carry out the necessary tests Giorgia uses human pluripotent stem cells - cells that have the ability to form all types of adult cell. She explains: “We produce human neural crest cells by differentiating human pluripotent stem cells, and we study their functionality using in vitro assays.
Giorgia has always been dedicated to working towards a future without animal testing, and has spent time researching at a number of prestigious laboratories dedicated to alternative testing, including the European Union Reference Laboratory for Alternative Animal Testing ((EURL ECVAM).
She says: “Since the beginning of my academic studies, I wanted to do research in alternative methods, because I felt this would have harmonized my personal ethics with my career.”
What’s more, Giorgia says, using in vitro testing allows her and her team to make discoveries and observations that would not be possible otherwise.
She explains: “The use of these kind of cell systems present two main advantages: on the one hand, human cell-based systems allow us to observe the toxic effects of substances which present species-specificity, and would not react in an animal model.
“On the other hand we can follow, in vitro, the early differentiation processes, capitulating particular mechanisms otherwise not available.”
Giorgia’s work has led to the team identifying several potential developmental toxicants that affect the neural crest’s mobility. After winning the Lush Prize Giorgia will continue with this research, and hopefully identify the molecular mechanisms underpinning the observed effects of the toxicants.