Support of animal friendly scientific research

Lab animals are still needed today for the development of new medicinal treatments. For certain domains such as toxicology and regulatory tests, however, animal testing can be drastically reduced without reducing the safety confidence of these tests, thus guaranteeing quality innovation. Since 2015, the VUB Mireille Aerens Chair is a stimulus for the development of alternative research methods that reduce reliance on lab animals. The chair creates opportunities for young researchers to conduct in-depth and innovative research in this field, thereby strengthening the foundations of animal-free research methodology.

What is animal friendly research?

The development of new medicines is expensive and time-consuming. Investments of €1-2 billion over a timeframe of 10-12 years are common in drug development. Yet, the eventually successful new substance that goes to the market only represents 1 in 10.000 research molecules. The greatest obstruction is usually the safety for human health. Despite the range of tests that are carried out on lab animals before initiating clinical trials, side effects such as severe liver toxicity often occur.

The positive results on lab animals (mostly mice and rats) are not always consistent with the effects on the human body. Less than 60% of these “in vivo” results are relevant to humans, which raises ethical questions and makes the search for alternative methods according to the 3R-concept (Refinement, Reduction, Replacement) all the more relevant. The initial intention of researchers to work animal free, is to assure a similar or higher degree of safety for humans. When lab animals are used, only the minimum number is allowed, necessary for the planned experiments, and the research has to be conducted under strict conditions with respect for Directive 2010/63/EU regarding the protection of animals used for scientific purposes.

Who is VUB philanthropist Mireille Aerens?

Mireille Aerens had a sparkling personality and a warm heart. Not only for humans, but also for animals. She decided to donate a part of her wealth to the VUB, starting in 2009. She created a chair to finance research on the reduced use of lab animals in scientific experiments. The chair was launched in 2015 with prof. dr. Vera Rogiers (research group IVTD – In Vitro Toxicology and Dermato-Cosmetology) as chair holder. As the dedicated founder of the chair, Mireille Aerens closely followed up the research. As Mireille Aerens explained in an interview: "I decided to already make a donation. Giving is a blessing on its own. The fact that I can do so for a Flemish university in Brussels that reflects my personal values, is something I am extremely grateful for. And I hope to contribute further after my death."

Mireille sadly left us on 30 March 2020 on the age of 86. We lost a very dear and loyal friend, and will definitely continue her life’s work at the VUB. She made this possible in her last will wherein she maintains support for the lab animal free studies within the research group IVTD of the VUB. Thanks to her engagement, the Mireille Aerens Chair will continue for many years to come. This beautiful gesture reflects her attitude to life. Her kindness and freely speaking nature are characteristic of what makes the VUB a unique university.

Lab animal free research projects within the Chair

2016-2019: The development of new 3-dimensional culture methods of human stem cells to detect possible toxic effects of new medicines. Stem cells from human skin were used and converted to functioning liver cells. This culture system was miniaturized to a prototype lab-on-a-chip. This interdisciplinary research was a unique collaboration between IVTD and the Brussels Photonics Team (B-PHOT) of the VUB led by prof. dr. ir. Hugo Thienpont. Two young researchers (Alessandra Natale and Joost Boeckmans) were given the opportunity to successfully finish their PhD theses within IVTD. Their doctorates and associated publications now convey the importance of alternative research methods.

2020-2023: Two young researchers have been appointed within IVTD in 2020. Anouck Thienpont started research on an innovative animal free strategy for the determination of genotoxicity (precursor of cancer) from the long-term use of medicines. A second young researcher will develop an animal free method for new medicinal treatments of NASH, sometimes referred to as the hepatic disease of the future. This illness often causes hepatic steatosis and inflammation, resulting in scarring and shrinkage of the liver. Currently there is no treatment available for this disease, apart from liver transplantation.

Current chair holder: em. prof. dr. Vera Rogiers

After completing her education as a pharmacist at the Ghent University, Vera Rogiers obtained a PhD in the pharmaceutical sciences at the VUB and an additional master’s degree in Applied Toxicology at the University of Guildford, UK. Over the years, she has, as the first in Belgium, put together a strong research team dedicated to the development of animal friendly in vitro methodology. Both national and international collaborations were realized in many prestigious projects. Together with her team, she gained various international prizes. As emeritus professor she is still active within IVTD and leads the Mireille Aerens Chair and the Innovation Centre-3Rs (IC-3Rs) at the VUB. In 2017, she handed over her position as head of the department of IVTD to prof. dr. Tamara Vanhaecke, with whom she collaborated closely during her academic career.

Future chair holder: prof. dr. Tamara Vanhaecke

Tamara Vanhaecke obtained her degree of Bio-engineer in the Cell- and Gen-Biotechnology at the VUB. After completing her PhD in Pharmaceutical Sciences under the supervision of prof. dr. Rogiers, she received an FWO post-doctoral mandate to continue her scientific work. Since then, she was also work leader of IVTD and hence co-responsible for attracting and supervising various PhD and other research projects in the domain of experimental in vitro toxicology. She is full professor since October 2017 and after 20 years of close collaboration, she succeeded prof. dr. Rogiers as the head of the research group IVTD where she continues with great enthusiasm the research on the development of alternative methods without the use of lab animals.

Type of chair

Research and innovation