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CRACK IT Challenge 36: Animal-free in vitro

We are excited to announce that ImmuONE was awarded funding to carry out the six-month proof-of-concept studies in Phase 1 of this year’s CRACK IT Challenges competition organised by the NC3Rs. Sponsored by Unilever and AstraZeneca, this challenge aims to adapt established OECD test guidelines for in vitro assays so that they are free from animal-derived products to improve human relevance and reproducibility and help drive the uptake of animal-free reagents.

Dr Victoria Hutter, CSO at ImmuONE is leading a multi-disciplinary consortium including PAN Biotech and the University of Oxford to answer this challenge. The team combines expertise in serum replacement, in vitro innovations and pre-clinical assessment to develop these solutions into marketable products and services that will have a significant impact on the 3Rs across the bioscience sector.

“It’s wonderful to be working with such a skilled and focussed team to address this Challenge,” says Victoria. “The NC3Rs, Unilever and AstraZeneca have put forward a very pertinent Challenge in the bioscience industry and we’ve put together a team that spans the breadth of expertise from innovators to end users to address it. As a result, we hope the benefits of entirely animal-product free approaches will be realised across the sector.”

One of the ultimate goals of the full Challenge is to deliver adapted OECD test guideline protocols which are free from animal-derived products and can be transferred to other laboratories to facilitate industry uptake.

“Whilst animal-free alternatives for cell culture and biological assessment exist, unfortunately their uptake by the scientific community has been slow,” says Victoria. “We aim to change this and demonstrate that completely animal product-free alternatives are possible and equivalent or better to standard animal product-containing reagents.”

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CASE STUDY: ImmuONE Making Each Breath Safer

Our co-founder Abigail Martin spoke with Set Squared about her journey from PhD student to building ImmuONE. This case study provides an outline of how ImmuONE was started and our expertise in human in vitro cell culture solutions for safety assessment. We take 23,000 breaths every day and the products we are developing help make those breaths safer for our bodies. Investment from ICURe was the first step in our journey and led to the discovery of how our products could make an impact within the biotech market and to various industries. Read more of our journey by clicking on the image below. 

Set Squared is a unique enterprise partnership and collaboration between the UK’s leading research universities of Bath, Bristol Exeter, Southampton, and Surrey, who support projects and help turn these into thriving businesses.

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Has 2020 influenced the transition to animal-free testing alternatives?

The year 2020 will not be forgotten in a hurry. It’s been tough for businesses in all sectors since the beginning of the global pandemic, which has transformed the way we interact socially and professionally. If that wasn’t enough to be dealing with, Brexit is edging ever closer, which impacts the regulatory frameworks for all areas of business. What a year we picked to establish ImmuONE Ltd, bringing our innovative in vitro inhaled safety assessment products and services to market.

How will the major events of 2020 shape the future of animal-free chemical and product safety testing in the UK? 

1. COVID-19

Lessons learnt from the animal-free safety assessment of cosmetics over the past decade have supported other industries in the move away from animal assessments in other industries. The rapid progression of COVID-19 vaccine trials in humans has in part been attributed to the availability of alternative in vitro and in silico tools, reducing the need for lengthy animal studies. There is every reason to adopt this approach wider within the pharmaceutical and chemical sectors. After all, 95 out of every 100 drugs that test safe and effective in animals go on to fail in human clinical trials. With the increasing demand for bringing products safety to market in a more timely and cost-effective way, the necessity for more human-relevant studies has never been greater. Perhaps this will spur the wider uptake of human in vitro cell culture methods and expand innovation in this field.

2. EU’s Chemicals Strategy

As part of the European Green Deal, the new European Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability is intended as a first step towards a toxic-free environment. The strategy highlights the need to develop multidisciplinary research and innovations for in vitro methodologies and data analysis capabilities to support the move away from animal testing. However, it has been criticised that the strategy lacks clear goals for phasing out animal testing and promotion of alternative methods. The unveiling of the strategy in October generated mixed reactions as to whether it would support the reduction of animal studies or increase the reliance on animal testing in chemicals safety assessment.

3. Brexit

The good news is that the UK government have confirmed the key principals of the EU regulation for the Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation or Restriction of Chemicals (REACH) into UK law which will be known as ‘UK REACH’ from 1st January 2021. This runs the risk of substantial repetition of both in vivo and in vitro studies for application under the UK REACH framework. However, there is no commitment to align with EU REACH regulation in the future.

The UK remains a global leader in the movement to replace animal testing. The reduction and replacement of animals in safety testing is lobbied by diverse range of institutions in the UK including charities (FRAME, Animal Free Research-UK, Lord Downing Trust), the commercial sector (Unilever, Lush, The Body Shop), scientific-commercial alliances (Human Relevant Science) and scientific organisations (NC3Rs). With this growing national support, perhaps Brexit could provide the catalyst for the UK to extend an animal-free approach to safety assessment beyond the cosmetics industry.

Outlook for 2021

As we bid farewell to the personal, societal and economic challenges of 2020, there may be some consolation that achieving animal-free safety assessment in all industries may be closer than we thought.

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ImmuONE awarded £35k ICURe funding

University of Hertfordshire PhD student Abigail Martin has returned from the trip of a lifetime, after exhibiting her cutting-edge health technology research across the world.


Abigail’s PhD research project has led to the development of a 3D model human lung that can be grown in a laboratory. The technology allows for the respiratory testing of any sort of chemical or particles that we might inhale. Scientists and researchers can use the test results to measure the extent of the damage that these substances can cause and determine the concentration that might be considered safe. This has worthwhile potential applications across a range of industries relating to pollution, agricultural chemicals, asthma, paint inhalation, as well as minimising the use of animal testing.


Abigail was accepted into Innovate UK’s Innovation to Commercialisation of University Research (ICURe) programme for the South England region after being approached by University of Hertfordshire Associate Dean (Business and Enterprise), Prof. Darragh Murnane, to apply. The ICURe journey began with an intensive 12 week programme that enables a cohort of innovators to validate a market for their technology.
“The programme starts with a week long intensive bootcamp,” says Abigail. “You’re given support with deciding the value proposition of your technology and advice on how to network with people to encourage you to actively go out and spread the word about it. You then do a pitch for a significant amount of funding to be used to travel the world and talk about your technology. After being successful in my pitch, I put together a schedule of tradeshows and exhibitions that I identified as addressing my key markets, and I set off.”
Abigail went on to make connections across four continents, visiting eight countries including the United States of America, France, Spain, Scotland and Belgium and taking part in upwards of 120 meetings, all of which enabled her to speak specifically to relevant contacts within the life sciences and pharmaceutical markets.
“In academia you don’t usually get a chance to go out and test if there is a market for academic inventions, and the opportunity to do this was invaluable in letting me evaluate my technology and how it might be used. I got to exhibit at tradeshows and industry conferences attended by anywhere between 100 and 45,000 people and ask them about the problems they face with current lung models, what works and doesn’t work for them, and identify ways in which we could improve the technology.”
“The experience itself was so empowering. At first it was challenging to gain the confidence to approach people and be assertive, especially coming in as a young female in quite a male dominated industry. But over the course of the programme and my time abroad, my confidence grew a lot and people were really welcoming and open to hearing from me. It was a great feeling, being able to bridge the gap between academia and industry.”“It was really reassuring to see that 25 percent of my ICURe cohort was female. We need to see more women and young people out there pushing their technologies and themselves.”Following the 12 week programme, Abigail delivered a pitch to Innovate UK and venture capitalists in order to progress into the next step of the programme. “After receiving positive feedback on my pitch, Innovate UK provided me with another 3 month salary and I was able to attend another business bootcamp, preparing me to move past market validation and into writing a business plan and raising capital.”

Don Spalinger, Director SETsquared ICURe Programme, said: “Abigail really exemplified what we have developed the SETsquared ICURe programme to do, which is to get the researchers out of the lab and into the marketplace to validate that their research results are addressing burning needs. She embraced the training she was given at the ICURe Bootcamp and then went out and held over 100 discussions with companies. She found that a number of these companies really needed the 3D human lung model, and she is now moving forward in commercialising it.”New Paragraph

The next steps towards commercialisation

As she works towards completing her PhD, Abigail has also submitted an application for another Innovate UK competition for follow-on funding, with the help of her PhD Supervisor Dr. Victoria Hutter and the University’s Business Development team.


“This round of funding would provide up to £300k! We’re hoping that with the further investment, we’ll be able to launch a spin out company from the technology, or if not, license it out. This isn’t something I would have been able to do, especially so quickly, had I not taken part in the ICURe programme. It enabled me to build on my entrepreneurial skills and in fact, I was being approached with job opportunities almost weekly, from people that I met at various conferences and events. I would definitely recommend it.”
Prof. Darragh Murnane, commented: “The University is proud to support talented researchers like Abigail in the development of their technologies and innovations, with real world implications. We’re huge advocates of inspiring our students to look beyond the realms of academia and to be enterprising and industry driven; Abigail is a perfect example of how rewarding and successful this can be.”


Original article can be found here