Erica Warkus has been a NAVS/International Foundation for Ethical Research (IFER) Graduate Fellow for just one year. But in that time, she has made great strides developing a cell-based test to identify drugs that cause birth defects.
Erica, an M.D./Ph.D. candidate at the University of Hawaii, has already published two peer-reviewed papers validating her system against chemicals known to be either safe or unsafe to developing embryos.
She sought to develop an animal-free alternative model because she recognized the limitations of scientists relying so heavily on animal models.
“Animal-based systems are very costly and time-intensive, with huge amounts of waste,” Erica noted. “In vivo tests are also subject to high levels of environmental and species-specific variability, which undermines the applicability to actual human biology. Finally, the majority of animal-based testing is unethical (despite our best efforts) and necessitates a disregard for quality of life for the millions of animals that are unlucky enough to be born into a lab.”
Rather than conduct unethical and costly experiments on pregnant lab animals, Erica has developed a unique in vitro test capable of identifying harmful chemicals that can cause birth defects. Erica’s test focuses on how these chemicals affect the process that forms physical body structures, called embryonic morphogenesis.
“[Our model] is able to identify these developmental toxicants more accurately than many of the other in vitro models,” Erica noted.
Erica had the opportunity to share data from her animal-free model last month at the Teratology Society Conference in Denver, where she received overwhelmingly positive feedback from leading academic researchers, industry scientists and government regulators. Many of the researchers in the field were intrigued by her innovative approach and have offered to collaborate with her on some new projects.
Erica is thankful to have support from IFER for her research.
“If there is funding available for academic researchers to work on alternative model systems, then scientists will develop new, more ethical and effective non-animal models,” she said. “That is why IFER’s mission is so critical—by supporting young scientists who want to reduce animal usage, IFER is helping to prepare the next generation of researchers to make fundamental changes in the way research is done.”
Help NAVS and IFER support smarter science—such as Erica’s—that advances discovery, innovation and human-relevant solutions without the use of harmful, flawed and costly animal experiments by making a donation today.