Animal welfare award for medical researcher

Professor Thomas Korff
Professor Thomas Korff

German vascular researcher Professor Thomas Korff has been named the latest recipient of the Ursula M. Händel Animal Welfare Prize.

Awarded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG, German Research Foundation), the prize recognises scientists who have improved the welfare of animals used in research. The prize of €100,000 will be awarded to Korff, who researches diseases of the vascular system at the Institute for Physiology and Pathophysiology at the University of Heidelberg, “for his exemplary application of the principles of the 3Rs (replacement, refinement and reduction)”.

Korff has developed various ways to minimise the distress experienced by animals used in experiments and reduce the number of animals required. He has also found alternative methods to animal testing.

The prize will be presented by DFG President Professor Peter Strohschneider in Berlin on March 20.

“The question for the DFG is to consider how science, which will not be able to do without animal testing entirely, can contribute to reducing the number of such experiments and to improve testing conditions to minimise animal distress,” Strohschneider said.

A workshop on the subject of “Animal Models in Research – Opportunities and Limitations” will take place before the award ceremony.

A jury chose the Korff as the winner from nine applications. The jury highlighted the relevance of Korff’s new and enhanced methods to a broad range of research, from cardiovascular physiology to research into tumors. His findings and methods have already been taken up by the pharmaceutical industry.

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.

The workshop before the ceremony will highlight the successes of research on animal models and the prospects for future development. There will also be a discussion of the limitations of this methodological concept, particularly of the heuristic and ethical problems and the complex issue of how the findings can be applied in other contexts.

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