Overview of all Ursula M. Händel Prizewinners

2024: Prof. Dr. Peter Loskill und Dr. Silke Riegger

Professor Dr. Peter Loskill and Dr. Silke Riegger of the University of Tübingen have been awarded this year’s Ursula M. Händel Animal Welfare Prize by the DFG.

According to the jury, the researchers’ development, application and dissemination of organ-on-chip systems have contributed significantly to replacing animal models with suitable alternatives. Endowed with a total of €80,000, the prize is being awarded this year for the tenth time to researchers who have brought about improvements in animal welfare in research based on the 3Rs principle. The three Rs stand for Replace, Reduce and Refine. The award ceremony will take place in Würzburg on 6 June at a symposium organised by the “Würzburg Initiative 3R (WI3R)”.

Prof. Dr. Peter Loskill

Peter Loskill obtained his doctorate in physics at Saarland University in 2012 and subsequently worked for several years at the University of California at Berkeley. He moved to the University of Tübingen in 2018, initially as a junior professor, and has been Professor of Organ-on-Chip Research since 2022. Regarded as a pioneer in the field of 3R research, Loskill heads the Department of Microphysiological Systems at the Institute for Biomedical Engineering and the 3R Center for In Vitro Models and Animal Testing Alternatives. He is scientifically active at European level, too, as well as being involved in policy consulting.

Dr. Silke Riegger

Silke Riegger completed her doctorate in chemistry at the University of Stuttgart and at the Fraunhofer Institute for Interfacial Engineering and Biotechnology. She has worked with Peter Loskill in Tübingen since 2020 and is a key figure at the 3R Center as Senior Scientist and Head of the 3R Center Business Unit for In Vitro Models and Alternatives to Animal Testing.

2022: Dr. med. Michael Karl Melzer and Würzburg Initiative 3R (WI3R)

The physician Dr. Michael Karl Melzer of the University of Ulm and the Würzburg Initiative 3R (WI3R), based at the Fraunhofer Translational Center Regenerative Therapies and the University of Würzburg, are to receive the Ursula M. Händel Animal Welfare Prize 2022 from DFG.

While Michael Karl Melzer is an early-career physician involved in both clinical work and scientific research, the Würzburg Initiative 3R (WI3R) is made up of a long-established team of scientists, namely Dr. Antje Appelt-Menzel, Dr. Gudrun Dandekar, Dr. Florian Groeber-Becker, Dr. Christian Lotz, assistant professor Dr. Marco Metzger, Dr. Maria Steinke and Dr. Daniela Zdzieblo.

Dr. med. Michael Karl Melzer

Michael Karl Melzer impressed the jury with his proposal to reduce the consumption of so-called basement membrane matrix such as Matrigel by using pig bladder, which is not generally processed for the production of meat in Germany. Basement membrane matrices are used for research into embryonic development and tumour formation, for example. They are produced in mice by transplanting tumour cells. Melzer was able to show in his studies that both pancreatic organoids and pancreatic carcinoma organoids can grow very well on pig bladder. Previously it was necessary to transplant the carcinoma cells into experimental mice for this purpose. Melzer aims to primarily use his prize money to advance his research in these areas.

He studied medicine at the Technical University of Munich and obtained his doctorate there in 2020. Since 2019 he has worked as an assistant physician at the Department of Urology and Paediatric Urology at the University Hospital of Ulm. In addition to his clinical work, he has already published eight papers as a postdoc – an outstanding achievement given his career stage. Melzer is currently doing research into stem cell-based systems to better understand cancer development in the pancreas.

Würzburg Initiative 3R (WI3R)

In its application, the Würzburg Initiative 3R (WI3R) presented the development and application of six in vitro models of the barrier organs skin, cornea, intestine, blood-brain barrier and lung as well as solid tumours: these serve to implement the “replacement” element of the 3R concept. The models are already widely used in infection and cancer research, for example, as well as in the testing of cosmetics, food supplements and medical products such as drugs and vaccinations. With the prize money, the team will seek to establish a 3R network, initiate scientific meetings and sponsor small-scale projects.

For more than ten years, the Würzburg Initiative 3R (WI3R) has been working on the highly complex modelling of disease processes and the testing of drug effects in ways which avoid animal experiments. One common underlying feature here is the goal of mimicking barrier functions of the body in vitro. The results achieved are of high technical quality and relevance to the application, as evidenced by a large number of publications in renowned international journals.

2020: Professor Dr. Dr. med. Thomas Hartung and Professor Dr. Marcel Leist

Computer scientist, biochemist and medical scientist Professor Dr. Dr. med. Thomas Hartung from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and the University of Konstanz and biochemist and toxicologist Professor Dr. Marcel Leist, also from the University of Konstanz, have been selected to receive the Ursula M. Händel Animal Welfare Prize by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG, German Research Foundation).

Using information about the toxicity of a well-studied substance, the prizewinners succeeded in predicting the toxicity of a material that has not yet been researched (known as the read-across process). This makes it possible to perform toxicological assessments of chemicals without additional animal experiments and to avoid new studies accompanied by a large number of experimental animals. The prizewinners used artificial intelligence to develop the RASAR model (read-across-based structure activity relationships), which uses information from toxicological databases to make automated predictions and can therefore help to reduce the number of animal experiments.

Prof. Dr. Dr. med. Thomas Hartung

Thomas Hartung studied computer science, biochemistry and medicine. He earned his doctorate as a toxicologist in 1992 in Tübingen before taking up a post as assistant professor in Konstanz. After working for some years as CEO of Steinbeis Technology Transfer Center for In Vitro Pharmacology and Toxicology, he headed the European Centre for the Validation of Alternative Methods in the Italian town of Ispra between 2002 and 2008. He has been a professor at the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and co-director of CAAT in Konstanz since 2009. CAAT is a joint venture between the universities in Baltimore and Konstanz and is supported by the Swiss Doerenkamp-Zbinden Foundation for Animalfree Research. Hartung is also an honorary professor in Konstanz. He has received many prizes for his research work, such as the US Society of Toxicology Enhancement of Animal Welfare Award.

Prof. Dr. Marcel Leist

Marcel Leist has been co-director of CAAT-Europe since its foundation in 2009. The biochemistry and toxicology graduate earned his doctorate in Konstanz. Following that, he worked at the German Institute of Human Nutrition in Potsdam-Rehbrücke before returning to the University of Konstanz to work as Head of Division. From 2000 to 2006, he worked at the pharmaceutical company Lundbeck in Copenhagen, before once again returning to Konstanz to take up the Chair of In Vitro Toxicology and Biomedicine there. Leist has received several prizes for his work, including the Animal Welfare Research Award from the German Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture.

2018: Prof. Dr. Ellen Fritsche and PD Dr. Dr. Hamid Reza Noori

Prof. Dr. Ellen Fritsche, a toxicologist from the Leibniz Research Institute for Environmental Medicine at Heinrich Heine University Düsseldorf, and PD Dr. Dr. Hamid Reza Noori, a mathematician, physicist and medical scientist from the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics in Tübingen, are to be presented with the Ursula M. Händel Animal Welfare Prize by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG, German Research Foundation). The prize which is worth €50,000 each is being presented for the seventh time. It is awarded to researchers who improve animal welfare in research in line with the principles of the 3Rs: Replacement, Refinement and Reduction.

The winners were chosen from among 16 nominees. So impressive were the candidates that the jury decided that this year’s prize should be shared. Fritsche is to be awarded the prize for the development of a test system for chemical effects, which has the potential to fully replace animal experiments currently required by law for toxicological testing. Noori is being recognised for his use of big data in neurobiology, which has the potential to significantly reduce the use of animal experimentation.

Prof. Dr. Ellen Fritsche

In her research Prof. Dr. Ellen Fritsche uses neurospheres, organ-like cell cultures which can be used to test the toxicity of a substance to brain development. This cell culture method has the potential to replace animal experimentation and identify chemicals that cause damage during the development of the nervous system. Because the neurospheres are grown from human stem cells, the results of the neurotoxicity studies allow a more accurate assessment of the risks of chemical substances to humans than is possible with animal studies, where the results are not always fully transferable to humans.

Fritsche and her working group intend to use the prize money to further develop their neurosphere models in partnership with the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) to enable reliable characterisation of the effects of neurotoxic substances and recognition of the test system, as a replacement for the currently required animal experiments.

PD Dr. Dr. Hamid Reza Noori

PD Dr. Dr. Hamid Reza Noori uses new approaches in mathematics, data mining and machine learning to evaluate the wealth of data published in recent decades from neurobiological research on rats. Through the complex analysis of existing data, Noori was able to identify the biochemical circuits in the rat brain which are essential to information processing – without conducting a single animal experiment.

Noori is now making the data from what currently amounts to nearly 150,000 rats available in two open access databases, which researchers all over the world can use to address research questions relating to neuroanatomy and neuropharmacology. The databases will help scientists to answer research questions in silico – by analysing existing data – or to plan new experiments more stringently. The use of big data in preclinical neuroscience offers considerable potential for animal welfare in research.

2016: Research Team at the Paul-Ehrlich-Institut

The Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG, German Research Foundation) will award the Ursula M. Händel Animal Welfare Prize for the sixth time this year. The prize recognises important scientific results that contribute to improving the welfare of animals used in research. The 2016 award, which is endowed with 100,000 euros, goes to Dr. Birgit Kegel and Dr. Beate Krämer together with four other members of the working group they head. The team works in the veterinary medicine department at the Paul-Ehrlich-Institut, the Federal Institute for Vaccines and Biomedicines, in Langen. It has developed a form of testing that can be used in place of experiments that have been necessary up to now but stressful to animals. The prize recognises the researchers’ outstanding contribution to implementing the principle of the 3Rs (reduction, refinement and replacement).

DFG President Professor Dr. Peter Strohschneider will present the Ursula M. Händel Animal Welfare Prize in Bonn on 28 September 2016. In announcing the winners, Strohschneider said: “Animal experiments are nonetheless essential to basic research in biology and medicine. For the DFG the issue is how research can simultaneously reduce the number of experiments and minimise the distress imposed on the animals.”

This year’s recipients, selected from 14 applications by a jury of scientists, were awarded for developing a method to replicate a complex biological mechanism in a cell culture. The development of the new form of testing makes a special contribution to implementing the 3Rs as this method can render a large number of exceedingly stressful animal experiments, affecting more than 600,000 animals per year, unnecessary.

The team of researchers headed by Dr. Kegel and Dr. Krämer succeeded in developing a cellular system that artificially replicates the relevant mechanisms of the harmful effects of botulinum neurotoxins and can therefore be used for testing the toxins. The botulinum neurotoxins produced by bacteria cause muscular paralysis in humans and animals. This property makes neurotoxins an important active ingredient in drugs for the treatment of a wide range of neurological illnesses in addition to their application in cosmetics. Prior to their application in medical and cosmetic products, the active agents have to be tested on mice as standard procedure. There are two types of botulinum neurotoxins. The researchers have already developed and published an alternative procedure for one of them; now they are planning to refine the in vitro method for the other neurotoxin. The researchers are planning to use the prize money for an international ring study that is required before the new form of testing can be introduced as a standard method.

2014: Prof. Thomas Korff

Ursula M. Händel Animal Welfare Prize to be awarded to physiologist Thomas Korff , who researches diseases of the vascular system at the Institute for Physiology and Pathophysiology at the University of Heidelberg.

A jury chose the new recipient of the animal welfare prize from among nine applications. The prize of 100,000 euros will be awarded on 20 March in Berlin. The prize recognises scientists who have improved the welfare of animals used in research.

One focus of Thomas Korff's research is to explain the mechanisms which lead to pathological changes in the vascular system. These include angiogenesis (new formations of blood vessels triggered by tumour growth) and the development of arteriosclerotic plaques and varicose veins. By characterising proteins which control the so-called "smooth" muscle cells in the walls of the blood vessels, he is helping to explain conditions such as high blood pressure. These findings can point towards new ways to prevent vascular disease and to deliberately stimulate desirable growth in the blood vessels.

Korff uses systematically developed cell culture systems to investigate reactions in individual cells in vascular change. This alternative method enables very distressing animal experiments to be avoided, thereby contributing significantly to the replacement and reduction aspects of the 3Rs. More complex changes in the wall of a blood vessel can only be studied on a living organism. Korff has developed new methods in this area as well which allow the formation of blood vessels to be observed on the ear of a mouse and which replace the previously necessary animal experiments which involved interrupting the blood flow to larger organs (an application of the refinement principle).

2011: Research Team at the University Hospital Hamburg-Eppendorf as well as Dr. Maria Moreno-Villanueva and Alexander Bürkle

The Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG, German Research Foundation) has once again honoured scientists who are improving animal welfare in research. The DFG has awarded the 2011 Ursula M. Händel Animal Welfare Prize to Dr. Arne Hansen, Alexander Eder, Sebastian Schaaf und Professor Thomas Eschenhagen from the University Hospital Hamburg-Eppendorf, and to Dr. Maria Moreno-Villanueva and Professor Alexander Bürkle from the University of Konstanz. The prize, endowed with 50,000 euros, will be shared between the two winning teams. It was presented on January 24 in Berlin, at a DFG event that brought together scientists, politicians and the general public for a dialogue on animal testing and animal welfare.

Prof. Thomas Eschenhagen and his research team

The research team around Thomas Eschenhagen at the University Hospital Hamburg-Eppendorf investigates the effects of pharmacological substances on the human heart. Testing of these cardiac effects has usually been done on animals. The scientists in Hamburg are developing an innovative alternative method using human embryonic stem cells. From these, the researchers differentiate tissue that has the properties of heart muscle tissue and can be used very flexibly to screen the agents. It allows them to simulate and control heartbeat strength and frequency as well as other important test parameters. This method, which is already in the advanced stages of its development and has been published in internationally recognised scientific journals, also makes it possible to conduct and analyse tests in a largely automated fashion.

Prof. Alexander Bürkle and Dr. Maria Moreno-Villanueva

The prizewinners from Konstanz, Maria Moreno-Villanueva and Alexander Bürkle, examine genotoxicity, which is the altering effect of chemical substances on the genetic material of cells. Previously, this would require large quantities of serum obtained from bovine foetuses. In contrast, the prizewinning method injects into the cells a dye that fluoresces in varying ways depending on the effect of the substance being tested. Its intensity is greatest if the cell’s DNA is preserved as a double strand, which indicates that no genotoxicity is present. Conversely, the intensity of the dye lessens when double-stranded DNA decreases and single-stranded DNA increases. This points to breaks in the genetic material and thus genotoxicity. This patent-pending method is likewise highly automated and allows a large number of substances to be tested within a short time.

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