Meet the two new employees of the 3Rs Centre Utrecht

This year, the 3Rs Centre Utrecht (3RCU) has been able to welcome two new employees. Birgit Goversen has been working at the 3Rs Centre Utrecht (3RCU) since February, commissioned by the Transition to Animal-Free Innovation (TPI) programme of the Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality (LNV). She will perform a feasibility study for an online expert pool in the field of New Approach Methods (NAMs). Melissa van Velthoven has been working at the 3Rs Centre Utrecht (3RCU) as a project leader in setting up a Basement Membrane Extract (BME)-free database since March. We talked with them about their new jobs and backgrounds.

Birgit Goversen

photo of Birgit Goversen

"I was born in Kaatsheuvel and grew up in the beautiful city of Tilburg. In 2008, I started my Biomedical Sciences bachelors in Utrecht, and I obtained my PhD at the UMC Utrecht. I lived in Utrecht for a long time, but nowadays I reside in Gorinchem. Animal-free innovations have always been a common thread in my education and professional choices. In my PhD research, I extensively studied the electrical activity of cultured heart muscle cells. During my postdoc project at Amsterdam UMC, I focused on how such methods can be applied in practice."

I believe it's important that we use fewer animals for research

What motivates you the most to work in this field?

"When I started my Biomedical Sciences education, I knew I didn't want to work with animals. Fortunately, apart from observing a mandatory practical with rats, I managed to avoid this throughout my education and career. I believe it's important that we use fewer animals for research, especially when it's unnecessary. I see human models as the future and am committed to this."

What does your project at the 3Rs Centre Utrecht entail?

"I am researching the need for, and feasibility of, a committee or helpdesk for expertise in New Approach Methods (NAMs), which are research methods that do not involve using animals. To do this, I will map out the wishes and needs of various stakeholders in the research field."

Why did you decide to apply for this position?

"This vacancy aligned well with my personal mission and skills. As a postdoc at Amsterdam UMC, I was part of a working group on the accessibility of NAMs expertise. With my background in the lab, I understand how challenging it can be to work in vitro, I understand the needs of researchers. I am also familiar with the more sceptical views surrounding in vitro research. With this experience, I can effectively identify the scientific needs and determine the feasibility of an online expert pool."

Melissa van Velthoven

Photo of Melissa van Velthoven

"This month, I started at the 3Rs Centre Utrecht. I originally come from Eindhoven and began my Biomedical Sciences studies in Utrecht in 2013. During my studies, I lived in Utrecht, but now I reside in Nijmegen. Last month, I obtained my PhD from Radboud University on the use of synthetic hydrogels as a potential treatment option for pelvic organ prolapse. During this project, I worked extensively in the lab with polyisocyanide (PIC) gel, which I can also synthesize myself. I cultured cells from patients with pelvic organ prolapse in this gel. I enjoy working with innovations and in my PhD project, I was happy to be involved in really pioneering research on pelvic organ prolapseā€

Basement membrane extracts like are still often the gold standard in the lab

You will be working on a database for hydrogel alternatives at the 3RCU. Why is this important?

"At present, basement membrane extracts like Matrigel, Cultrex and Geltrex, are the gold standard in organoid and stem cell research. However, there are both ethical and scientific objections. Matrigel is derived from mouse tumours, meaning specific tumours, known as Engelbreth-Holm-Swarm (EHS) sarcomas, are induced in mice. These mice are euthanized once the tumour has grown. From a scientific perspective, Matrigel has the major disadvantage that each batch has a different composition. Moreover, results may not translate well to humans since the gel originates from mice. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Matrigel export has halted, prompting researchers to experiment with alternatives. Various alternatives have been developed. My task is to map out these alternatives and set up a database."

What experiences and insights do you bring from your PhD project to this project?

"I have six years of experience using various hydrogels in the lab through my education and PhD. With my experience and knowledge, I know well what kind of information needs to be collected in this database so that users are adequately informed about the different alternatives. I find it valuable that I can now use this knowledge to contribute to setting up this database. Hopefully, this database can contribute to reduced Matrigel use in biomedical research in the future. I also find it exciting to not be in the lab for once but to immerse myself in a more overarching project like this."