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Q&A with 2013 winners: Simona Martinotti

We caught up with Simona Martinotti back in 2014 - one year after she  won the Lush Young Researcher Prize.

Could you describe who you are and what you do?

I am a student of Biology, and have always been attentive and curious but more interested in the practice rather than mere speculation. I've always been attracted by the opportunity to research in vitro testing, in order to avoid the unnecessary and painful suffering of animals.

From my undergraduate thesis, I am studying the cellular and molecular responses of skin cells, such as keratinocytes and fibroblast, and of other cell types, to different in vitro stressful conditions and treatments in order to obtain more details on suitable end-points. I hope to accelerate development of the science for toxicity testing of cosmetics and other products.

I am using honey as a novel natural compound for wound and tissue repair and regeneration. This project was undertaken to add value to the existing honey-based resources, by developing products with therapeutic benefits (i.e. for the treatment and management of moist wounds such as burns and ulcers). This process involves the identification of appropriate floral sources, the evaluation of the 'active' agent(s), and the understanding of cellular and molecular events occurring during wound repair and regeneration processes, as induced by honey.

Why were you nominated for the prize?

I devoted my undergraduate thesis to the study of cellular and molecular events involved during the wound repair and regeneration process. In particular I am using drug discovery strategies based on natural products and traditional medicines.

The history of medicine reveals that most early medical discoveries emerged as a result of serendipity, or approaches based on folklore remedies – often involving poisonous sources – rather than from conventional medicine. Mass screening of plants in the search for new leads or drugs is vastly expensive and inefficient. There is growing evidence to show that old molecules are finding new applications through a better understanding of traditional knowledge and clinical observations. 

The close relationship of this work with the development of new in vitro tests means that our research supports anti-animal testing methods, which is why I was nominated.

Why did you win the prize?

At the moment, I am prone to learning from senior researchers and prominent scientists, but I am trying to become a reference for younger lab people. I am also trying to create empathy and successfully communicate molecular biology’s most difficult topics without overlooking the importance of the in vitro approach.

What difference has winning the prize made to your contribution to the goal of the ‘three R’s (Reduction, Refinement, Replacement)?

The winning of Lush Prize acts as a springboard for both research and scientific communication. In particular, we developed the idea and set up the Caffè Scienza Alessandria (http://caffescienza.wordpress.com), a place where it's possible for anyone to come and drink a cup of coffee or eat a cookie, whilst also exploring the latest ideas in science and technology. We wanted the Caffè Scienza Alessandria to be a place for people to discuss alternative testing methods that could reduce, refine, or replace animals in research, for non-animal methods, to obtain scientifically valid information.

We are deeply involved in scientific experiments studying the cellular and molecular responses of skin cells, such as keratinocytes and fibroblast, and of other cell types, i.e. endothelial, muscle and osteoblast cells, to accelerate the development of the science for toxicity testing of cosmetics and other products.

We are also employing and developing in vitro tests for evaluating new combinations of chemotherapeutic drugs with plant-based compounds in order to decrease drug toxicity and increase the mixture’s efficacy.

Could you outline how your work overlaps with current governmental policy?

The scientific challenges of developing non-animal approaches to skin sensitisation and cosmetic testing are formidable. These challenges have taken on greater urgency in the context of the recently enacted mandate that cosmetics marketed in Europe should be free of animal testing, including for systemic endpoints. We strongly believe that a focused effort is needed from regions outside of Europe, and to products and companies outside of the cosmetics industry as well.

What did winning the Lush Prize mean to you?

I used the Lush Prize as springboard to continue to spread the use of in vitro tests and to encourage other young scientists to pursue a scientific career and to become interested in alternative methods.

How will you continue in your field, to fight against animal testing?

The Caffè Scienza Alessandria will continue to flourish as a place to discuss non-animal testing methods. We are also organising Alessandria’s Researchers' Night. We'll use this opportunity to create seminars, experiments and scientific corners to demonstrate the possibility of using in vitro approaches to replace and/or avoid the use of animals. 

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