Jeffrey Bajramovic: 'The 3Rs Centre Utrecht aims to actively facilitate researchers'

Interview with Jeffrey Bajramovic

Jeffrey Bajramovic has been the new head of the 3Rs Centre Utrecht (3RCU) since July 2022. His ambition for the 3RCU is to become an advocate and a centre of action for the 3Rs, by centralizing information and by facilitating researchers to take up new approach methods (NAMs). On 11 May, the 3RCU will organize a seminar to present Jeffrey and the plan of action for the centre.  

Where does your motivation to replace animal experiments come from?  

Partly from personal experience, partly from conviction. During my PhD I was working in the field of multiple sclerosis research. While I was working on an in vitro model using human material, one of my colleagues was working on an in vivo mouse model. Her studies progressed with great difficulty, and she finally found out that this was because mice have an intrinsically different immune system than humans do. What surprised me most about this finding was the reaction of most of the peer reviewers. While we reasoned that, for our purposes, the mouse was thus not a good model for the human disease we were studying, they reasoned that our finding had little relevance for humans because we could not get similar results in the mouse. Of course, animal models have taught us a lot and can still be insightful if applied carefully, but for many research questions an in vitro approach using human material can lead us to learn more and to have a better understanding of the processes at stake.  

This was the first time I realized that animal models are not always helping us forward, and that -because they are considered the gold standard- they are sometimes even hampering us.

And what about your conviction? 

I am a biologist by training and by heart. I love all sorts of animals (humans as well) and we are not placed above nature, but we are a part of it. Currently, the societal approach towards animals is rapidly changing as we increasingly realize their intrinsic value. In addition, the non-sustainable ways we are using animals for our own benefit will also make changes necessary. Rather than waiting for these changes to happen, I want to be part of them and intend the 3RCU to become one of the centers of the movement.   

What is the ambition of the 3RCU?  

The 3RCU has the ambition to become a facilitating hub for the uptake of the 3Rs in the broadest way possible. We want to have a role in educating scientists about the 3Rs and culture of care, to provide researchers with information to help them develop and apply NAMs, and to actively facilitate their activities by centralising relevant databases, animal-free reagents, and manpower. Central to our approach is that it is aimed at the researchers themselves. For example, we want to facilitate researchers to perform parallel studies using NAMs and ‘classical’ animal models. By obtaining comparative data, the discussion takes a step into the scientific arena and hopefully this allows for progress. We want to move forward and strive to make the 3RCU goals as measurable as possible. 

I believe that the best way to promote NAMs is directly via the people that should start using them

Could you tell us a bit more about these NAMs? 

NAMs is short for new approach methods or non-animal methods. Classically the 3Rs are about Replacement, Reduction and Refinement of animal experiments. Strictly speaking, this excludes methods that are not directly aimed at the 3Rs, even if methods would be completely animal free. The term NAMs is more inclusive, and encompasses any combination of technology, methodology or approach that can lead to insights without the use of vertebrate animal testing. Examples of NAMs are in vitro tests or assays using human or animal cells or in chemico assays to evaluate how a chemical interacts with certain materials or in silico algorithms which are computer-driven predictive tools. Micro-dosing experiments in humans can also be considered as NAMs. They all have in common that they put the human aspect central, rather than the in vivo aspect. NAMs form the cornerstone of the Dutch Transition towards Animalfree Innovations program (TPI), and we embrace both the 3Rs as well as NAMs as guidelines for our work. 

What is the plan of action for the 3RCU?  

We wish to increase our visibility and credibility by obtaining and presenting results rather than intentions. Action is key but we cannot move without the researchers, students, and other stakeholders. The most important challenge is to get people on board, and for that we are organizing working groups around specific themes. One of these themes is the elimination of animal-derived products, such as fetal calf serum and matrigels, in cell culture practices. By bringing together researchers from all over the Utrecht campus, we can really have an impact. We have selected three themes ourselves as focus points but encourage researchers to suggest additional themes for working groups or round tables. If there is enough interest, we will organize movement. A second challenge is to secure allocated budgets that allow for sufficient and prolonged support. Regarding this aspect, we are securing budgets from multiple sources and benefit from the fact that the Utrecht Science Park is a big and central research hub. Companies can, for example, more easily be persuaded to provide us with free test samples of innovative and expensive reagents, since we represent an interesting market for them.  

The most important challenge is to get people on board

What things would you like to achieve with the 3RCU?  

I would like to contribute to a change in the way we approach biomedical science and to decrease our dependance on animals. I would like to achieve that in parallel to every in vivo study, a real effort is being put into experiments aimed at avoiding using animals the next time for similar purposes. This is terribly complicated and will probably not always be possible, but if we do not try, we will keep doing what we are doing. Asking researchers to break up their research questions may help here, and my place in the Animal Welfare Body provides me with the possibility to discuss this directly with them. Often, the use of animals to obtain an answer to a research question is legitimated by reasoning that we do not understand the complex interactions in the entire organism. As much as this is true, this should not be the end of the discussion but rather the start.  

If we look far into the future, I do not believe that we will still be using animals to develop and test medicines. Therapies will be aimed at prevention, they will be personalized and entirely human-based. The mission of Utrecht University of working towards a better world aligns with this belief and I want to contribute to getting there as soon as possible.

If you want to know more about the 3RCU you’re invited to join our seminar on 11 May at 15.30 in the Victor J. Koningsbergergebouw. Register here.