Scientist Mathieu Vinken coordinates prestigious European research into animal-free methods for testing chemical substances

Mathieu Vinken, pharmacist-toxicologist affiliated with the Department of Pharmaceutical and Pharmacological Sciences of the VUB, will be responsible for the general coordination of the “ONTOX? project for a period of 5 years from 1 May 2021 onwards. The “ONTOX? project, supported by a European grant of more than 17 million Euros, is looking with 18 European and American partners for innovative methods to evaluate the safety of chemical substances without using laboratory animals.

Before chemicals, such as pharmaceuticals, food additives, cosmetic ingredients and pesticides, can be placed onto the market, they must first undergo rigorous testing to ensure their safety. Traditionally, this is done on the basis of protocols that have been laid down in a regulatory manner and that often rely on the use of large numbers of laboratory animals. This approach is increasingly criticized from an ethical point of view. In addition, this approach assumes that results obtained in animal studies are relevant to humans. However, especially in the pharmaceutical sector, it has now become clear that up to half of the animal experiments are insignificant for humans due to so-called interspecies differences between humans and animals. For these reasons, worldwide attention has gradually shifted especially in the last two decades to the development and application of non-animal methods for evaluating the safety of chemical substances. In the cosmetic sector, animal testing has even been fully banned by law within the European Union for several years, an example that is increasingly followed by various non-European countries. Such non-animal methods mainly concern cell culture methods using human cells and computer models, referred to as in vitro and in silico methods, respectively. The “ONTOX? project, which is an acronym of “ontology-driven and artificial intelligence-based repeated dose toxicity testing of chemicals for next generation risk assessment’, makes optimal use of such in vitro and in silico methods, and is based on 2 pillars , namely ontology and artificial intelligence. Ontology denotes a pragmatic way of collecting and rationally presenting information about chemicals of various nature already available from all kinds of sources. This is done, amongst others, by means of artificial intelligence, whereby an attempt is made to provide the necessary human intelligence to a computer in order to accurately predict the safety of chemical substances for humans. The “ONTOX? project will focus specifically on toxic effects induced by a wide range of chemicals on the liver, kidneys and brain. However, the methodology and strategies that will be developed are equally applicable to other organs and organ systems. The “ONTOX? consortium is made up of several prominent academic groups and companies from 8 European countries and the US, and combines a wide variety of disciplines, including natural sciences, applied sciences and social sciences. In addition, there will be close cooperation with various regulatory authorities worldwide in view of quick implementation of the new non-animal methods and strategies.

Vinken: “This is a unique research project with a distinct interdisciplinary, intersectoral and international dimension. The impact the “ONTOX? project will have is not the least. The “ONTOX? project will not only lead to a drastic decline in laboratory animal use, but will equally trigger a true global revolution in the regulatory testing of the safety of chemicals. Expectations are therefore high and that is why the “ONTOX? project is closely followed from all over the world. It is a real challenge, but above all a great honor, to be able to lead such a major research project as a (West) Flemish. I am especially proud I can do this as a representative of the VUB. It is a great opportunity to further increase the international visibility of our university as well as to propagate our values widely. -

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