BSC participates in Spain’s first farm animal organoid biobank to allow research into infectious diseases without the use of live animals

08 March 2023

Organic tissues will be recreated in miniature from pigs, chickens and ruminants and used during the different experimental phases to identify treatments and vaccines

It will be located at the Animal Health Research Center (IRTA-CReSA) and will be available to the entire scientific community to lead biomedical research towards a more ethical and sustainable future

In addition to IRTA and BSC, the project will be partnered by IrsiCaixa and the PharmaMar biopharmaceuticals company

Experimentation with animals that act as models in the field of biomedical and veterinary research is essential in enabling us to understand how certain diseases function and investigate potential therapies and vaccines. However, we have been witnessing a trend towards reducing the occasions on which animals are used and replacing them with alternative methods. This is why the FARMBANK project, led by the Animal Health Research Centre (CReSA) of the Institute of Agriculture and Food Research and Technology (IRTA) in partnership with the IrsiCaixa AIDS Research Institute, the Barcelona Supercomputing Center-Centro Nacional de Supercomputación (BSC-CNS) and the PharmaMar biopharmaceuticals company, aims to create an organoid biobank with different species of farm animals and make it available to the entire scientific community that studies infectious diseases in animals and humans of zoonotic origin, that is, those that are transmitted from animals to people. It is the first biobank of this kind to be set up in Spain. It is now reached the preparation and internal use stage and is expected to become available to other research groups in the coming months.

Organoids are three-dimensional structures that recreate the characteristics of an organic tissue in miniature. They can prove to be a promising alternative, because they are easily grown from stem cells and maintain the physiological characteristics of the original tissue. They can therefore be used as a system in vitro to study the development and function of the tissues and the effects of pathogen infections. The FARMBANK project will initially seek to generate organoids from the nasal cavities, lungs and intestines of about a hundred pigs and expand its work to other farm animals such as chickens and ruminants at a later phase. “Thanks to this project, we’re moving towards a more ethical and sustainable future for biomedical research, as we’ll be able to dispense with the living animals that are now essential for making disease models”, declared Júlia Vergara-Alert, an IRTA animal health programme researcher and co-manager of the project.

Another of the lines of work to be addressed by the biobank will be the goal of becoming a valuable resource for developing antiviral drugs. “It will allow us, for example, to investigate how viruses can change between animal species and rapidly test new antiviral treatments under experimental conditions very similar to real ones”, explained Karl Kochanowski, an IRTA animal health programme researcher and co-manager of the project. The organoids will be prepared for research to begin with antivirals to treat swine coronaviruses, as well as coronaviruses that affect people, such as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, caused by the MERS coronavirus, and SARS-CoV-2, stemming from COVID-19. With regard to the latter, the biobank will also be used to study the mechanisms that lead coronaviruses to become resistant to antivirals.

Throughout the FARMBANK project, it will be vital to be able to rely on a state-of-the-art bioimaging platform that serves to validate the function and use of the organoids. This confocal microscopy equipment, unique in Southern Europe, is housed at the laboratories of the IRTA-CReSA Biocontainment Unit.

FARMBANK is part of the I+D+i PLEC2022-009171, funded by MCIN/AEI/10.13039/501100011033 and the European Union NextGenerationEU/PRTR.