Daniela Salvatori: In 5 years’ time we will speak of humanised science

In the approximately 9 months since her appointment as professor of comparative anatomy and physiology at the veterinary faculty, Utrecht University, Daniela Salvatori already boosted innovations and alternatives to animal experiments. Recently she cofounded TPI Utrecht, together with colleagues from Utrecht University, UMC Utrecht, and the University of Applied Sciences Utrecht; among other activities TPI Utrecht is working on an innovative Master course on alternatives to animal experiments. TPI spoke to her about her motivation and ambitions.

Why is it important to you to work towards replacing and refining animal experiments?

‘I have worked with laboratory animals, small and large. Animals have been part of my life from when I was a kid growing up in the Italian Apennine mountains.

Daniela Salvatori grew up in Italy, studied in Scotland and worked in London and Leiden before landing in Utrecht. Currently, she is professor of comparative anatomy and physiology, and head of anatomy and physiology and Programme Director lifelong learning at the faculty of veterinary medicine at Utrecht University.

As a veterinarian, my mission is to improve animal health. I have worked as designated veterinarian and as laboratory animal pathologist. Laboratory animal veterinarians serve as a unique bridge between the humane use of laboratory animals and the advancement of scientific and medical knowledge. Anyway, the use of animals for research does not come without ethical dilemma.

Therefore, I have always tried to replace and refine animal experiments for both small and large animals. And of course, in the last 10 years, science has changed a lot. If I think about the stem cells field, organs on a chip, in silico models and computational models, we really made a tremendous step forward in the possibilities to replace animals.’

How do you feel about the transition programme towards animal free innovations?

‘Sometimes I don’t like to use the term Transitie Proefdiervrije Innovatie [transition programme towards animal free innovations, red.] because it can be very sensitive to those researchers that still need to use animals. And this is where all of our conversations become highly emotional. It is a fact that the entire laboratory animal field is trying its best to refine and to replace animal tests.’

‘Animal testing cannot yet be replaced in all branches of science and for all research questions. And I think the strategy must be to take those researchers on board as well. Because their stories matter just as much. A polarized view is both detrimental and frustrating for all.’

How is the Netherlands performing regarding animal free innovations in comparison?

‘I feel very proud to work in this country where so many initiatives for better science, using less animals, began. And I think the Netherlands is really a trend setter. Also, in communication and collaborations between different people and organisations. What I really appreciate about the Netherlands, for example, is that Proefdiervrij is a very pro-active organisation, with a constructive and open style of communication.

Of course, this country is so small, it is easier to get organised. But still, this collaboration among scientists and different disciplines will be crucial to innovate. We are in many ways now highly specialized scientists, but we need to keep finding connections for working together with other types of scientists. Again: the challenge is how to work together and how to communicate together. And also, as scientists, we have so many things to do! The work is so challenging and competitive that to create a community that is open and able to progress together is, however necessary, also difficult.’

What role can a regional hub, like TPI Utrecht, play?

‘For me, the main benefit is to have this bit of space where we can think: “Ok, what are we doing next and how can we – together – progress?” And in our busy lives, we need this space in which we can create and think about future initiatives and plans.’

‘Our university deans included TPI in their strategic plan. So, I am actually enormously honoured to be an ambassador of TPI Utrecht. Of course, we strive towards replacement, but our main goal is top research and education, and to stimulate collaborations while doing so. Which means that at TPI Utrecht we need to create a culture of inclusion. We have to do it together, for the patients, for the doctors, for the researchers, for the animals, and together with the funding bodies and policy makers. We have the huge challenge to connect these partners.’

‘We should not underestimate the value of education in this story. We always talk about research, but education early on in the curriculum is central!’

Speaking about education, we hear that you are working on a Masters’ course and organising a Helpathon to that end. Tell us more!

‘Our students would like to learn much earlier on about alternatives and the latest developments in science. We teach PhD and postdoc students a 4-week course about animal procedures. In this course, we speak about alternatives for only one hour.’

‘A comment I get regularly from our participants is. “I would have liked to hear about TPI, Proefdiervrij and the Dierdonorcodicil much more in advance. And I would have liked to know about VitalTissue and the tissue banks, much earlier on.” Moreover, I notice that our students are very open to the ethical discussion. What place do animals hold in our society, and not only in science?’

On June 18th and 19th TPI Utrecht had two helpathons happening simultaneously, where around 70 participants shared knowledge, experiences and creative ideas. Daniela asked help to organize an animal free innovation master course; Saskia Van Mil, a UMC Utrecht Professor, asked support for redesigning her NWO-Vici liver disease project without animals.  Read more about the helpathons in this article.

Where do you hope we will be in 5 years’ time?

I hope that we will talk more and more about humanised science instead of the Transitie Proefdiervrije Innovatie. And I would love to have a virtual institute for humanised science, perhaps here in Utrecht, or among different universities.

And in this regard, do you think COVID-19 is a threat? Or an opportunity?

This current dramatic situation shows that the health and welfare of humans and animals are strictly linked together. The current situation is an opportunity to review ways in which humans use other animals and share the environment with them. We have the opportunity to step up to review and change our human- animal interactions.

Although laboratory animals are currently used in coronavirus research, large international coalitions are hoping to arrive soon at having an effective vaccine by sharing data, using epidemiology and human clinical case studies, and where possible using non-animal alternatives.