Moving 'Beyond animal research' with virtual twin experimentation

After challenging New Scientist magazine readers to articulate how scientific advances could do away with animal research, a judging panel has chosen a winner.

Natalia Alexandrov, a researcher at NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, receives a £2,000 prize and her article appears in the June 6 issue of New Scientist.

The competition began in March of this year with a call by New Scientist and the NC3Rs to "envisage how advances in technology could end the need for animal research."  Entrants were asked to compose a 650 word article that discussed existing technologies or novel approaches that would eliminate the need for animal testing.

Natalia Alexandrov's winning entry, "Your Virtual Twin", introduces us to the world of 2050 when computer-generated twins are created for every baby to test drugs and detect long-term health issues. Natalia argues that "the integration of subsystem models into one systemic model" is a challenge, but "the benefits of a virtual twin that evolves along with the human it represents would be enormous." **

Natalia, a mathematician said: "I hadn't anticipated how exciting it would be to write for a general audience." She added: "I really believe that creating a virtual human for biomedical research will be technically possible in the future." **

One of the competition judges Lewis Wolpert, developmental biologist and emeritus professor of biology at University College London, said: "This essay was imaginative and well written. In 50 years time, virtual twins could be a reality and a way of testing every individual throughout their life."

New Scientist editor Roger Highfield said: "I have yet to meet a scientist who is a pro-vivisectionist. No one likes experimenting on animals but such work, despite its shortcomings, plays an important role in helping to protect people from harm and developing new drugs. However, there has to be a better way. The "beyond animal research" essay competition attracted more than 120 entries which showed the vast imagination of New Scientist readers whose ideas to replace animals in research range from virtual humans called Google-sapiens to the iMouse, an artificial mouse with stem cell-generated organs and nano-chip sensors."

Chief executive of NC3Rs Dr Vicky Robinson said: "We were hugely impressed by the range of ideas and how eloquently they were expressed. Our hope is that the winning essays will inspire the next generation of scientists to turn these fictions into reality and reduce our use of animals for research in the process."

The objective behind the competition was to raise awareness of the mission of the National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research (NC3Rs) in the UK as part of celebrations for the 50th anniversary of the '3Rs' concept provoking discussions about finding alternative methods for animal testing.

**These views are Natalia Alexandrov's personal opinions and do not represent NASA's opinions or views.


Notes to editors:

  1. To read the winning essay and the runners up, please visit: 
  2. New ways to replace animals in research will be the subject of a debate at this year's Cheltenham Science Festival at 6.30 on Thursday 4th June. The latest developments in stem cell technology and the 'virtual physiological human' project will be discussed, along with writer Paul McAuley's sci-fi view of the future of drug testing.  For more information visit:
  3. The 3Rs principles. The 3Rs were first described in 'The Principles of Humane Experimental Technique' by William Russell and Rex Burch, which was published in 1959. The authors were commissioned to write the book by the Universities Federation for Animal Welfare to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the publication of Darwin's 'The Origin of Species'. 
  4. The 3Rs concept is found in both UK and European legislation governing the use of animals in research, and reflects the consensus view that alternatives to animals should be used where possible and that suffering should be minimised where alternatives are not yet available.

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