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NC3Rs announces winners of 2015 3Rs Prize

29 Feb 2016

Three pieces of outstanding published research with 3Rs impacts have been given awards in this year’s 3Rs Prize competition, run by the NC3Rs, and sponsored by GlaxoSmithKline (GSK). One of the award winners was Dr Madeline Lancaster from the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge for her work on brain organoids. The Prize ceremony took place in London on Monday 29 February with 150 guests from across the scientific community attending.

The NC3Rs is a leading UK organisation dedicated to replacing, refining and reducing the use of animals in research, and the 3Rs Prize is part of its strategy to recognise excellence in science which minimises animal use or improves animal welfare. The receive core funding from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) via the Medical Research Council (MRC) and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), and the Home Office.

Two papers were declared joint winners of the 2015 Prize. The first describes a 3D model of the embryonic human brain created from stem cells. These so-called ‘cerebral organoids’ represent a major scientific breakthrough because for the first time the complexity and structure of the developing brain has been replicated in vitro. This has significant implications not only for studying neurological diseases but also for replacing some animal studies.

A second paper published in the Journal of Pharmacological and Toxicological Methods by Dr Laura Hall, University of Stirling, in collaboration with AstraZeneca improves the technique of oral dosing in dogs, was co-awarded the top prize. A highly commended award was received by Dr Hayley Francies from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute for her work published in Cell about the characterisation of a biobank of colorectal cancer organoids.

Cerebral organoids and microcephaly

Dr Madeline Lancaster, from the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, has developed the first 3D model where brain tissue is able to spontaneously self-organise to form a structure resembling the human embryonic brain. The findings from her work with Professor Juergen Knoblich, at the Institute for Molecular Biotechnology in Vienna, have been published in Nature.

The suitability of animal models in studying brain development and disease can be limited, as the brains of commonly used animals such as rats and mice are less complex and lack crucial components present in the human brain. The cerebral organoids are a major step towards reducing reliance on animals in studying neurological diseases and the development of new treatments.

The paper also describes how the cerebral organoids can be used to model human microcephaly, a disorder recently in the news because of its association with the Zika virus outbreak. The researchers observed that organoids created from patient-derived induced pluripotent stem cells were abnormally small, consistent with the smaller brains seen in microcephaly patients. Further investigation revealed a defect in a specific neural stem cell population causing patient-derived organoids to generate neurons too early and eventually become depleted, leading to an overall smaller structure.

Dr Lancaster, who has recently given a TEDx talk about her research, said: “This award is truly an honour and will make an important difference in my lab’s effort to study human brain development and disease. The recognition highlights the power of in vitro methods, such as organoids, for modelling human disease, and I hope it will encourage others to utilise similar in vitro methods with 3Rs benefits. Currently at least 16 other labs are using the brain organoid method and are beginning to make important findings. Although these are still early days, we are hopeful that in the future it could be developed to model psychiatric disorders and even the ageing brain and neurodegeneration.”

Recognising and rewarding excellence in the 3Rs – the annual NC3Rs Prize

Sponsored by GlaxoSmithKline, the international NC3Rs Prize is awarded every year to the authors of an original research paper published within the last three years with outstanding scientific or technological potential to replace, reduce or refine the use of animals in research. Applications are judged by an expert Panel. The prize consists of a grant of £18k, plus a personal award of £2k. Highly-commended entries receive a £4k grant and £1k personal award.

Professor Ian Kimber OBE chair of the Prize Panel, said: “The task of the Panel in reaching decisions about the annual NC3Rs prize is always formidable, but this year was more challenging than ever. There were some outstanding nominations describing truly ground-breaking research. On this occasion, for the first time, two awards have been made. The substantial achievements made by these joint winners are very different, and serve to illustrate the breadth of the science that can impact on the 3Rs. The Panel congratulate the winners, and the highly commended awardee, for their remarkable work.”


Image credit: Madeline A. Lancaster/IMBA


  • Categories: Research
  • Health categories: Cancer, Neurological
  • Strategic objectives: Securing impact from medical research
  • Locations: Cambridge
  • Type: News article, Success story