While animal welfare is always top of mind for researchers, the bottom line is that a certain number of donor pigs are needed to improve life for the rest of them. Keeping that number to a minimum is a big focus of the Genome Alberta-led project aimed at boosting disease resilience in pigs with the power of genomics. As it turns out, cutting edge technology isn’t just adding a new dimension to these efforts; it’s adding three dimensions.
“We wanted to look at how a low-cost, 3D–printed device could be used in taking multiple segments of intestines from one donor pig and producing hundreds of segments for experimental use,” said Dr. Matheus Costa, Assistant Professor at Utrecht University, PDF, Swine Health Resident and Adjunct Professor at WCVM.
A vet, an engineer and a 3-D printer specialist walk into a lab…
Researchers aimed to mimic the environment inside the body in an external incubator. With help from a veterinarian, an engineer and a 3-D printer specialist, they produced a small device allowing them to simulate both interfaces of the intestine.
“The inside of the intestine is full of food, bacteria and other nutrients, while the outside is where the blood and oxygen come from. The 3-D device allows us that separation where we can give both the inside and outside what they need to thrive outside the body.”
This approach has clear advantages over the current approach to culturing intestine segments outside the body through the hyperoxic chamber method. For example, the chamber method requires a highly flammable 99 per cent oxygen level that is hazardous for researchers.
For Dr. Costa and his team, the real significance of 3-D technology is its ability to reduce the number of pigs needed for research.
“This approach enables us to use fewer pigs and get the same results. We can gain knowledge on a certain subject in the lab and limit the need to euthanize animals.”
But the gains don’t end there.
“Before we were limited to the number of things we could investigate as we only had so many pigs to work with. Now we can examine more and different variables and test our hypothesis in the lab before moving on to whole animals, reducing the time and money needed while improving accuracy. Also, the intestinal tissue from each animal can be used to study different time points, which cannot be done using in vivo studies. ”
As with much technology these days, the potential for the 3-D device they developed goes far beyond the current project.
A lot to digest
“It means we can expand our research capability to problems associated with the gastrointestinal tract. Beyond studying infectious diseases, we can delve into nutrition and how we might feed animals differently to better stimulate the intestine and improve absorption of a given nutrient. We can improve gut health or drug absorption, or study the effect of a new drug on the microbiome.”
From a big picture perspective, this technology gives the industry a more powerful tool for investigating gut-related concerns while improving how the public views such research.
“This doesn’t totally eliminate the need to use animals to test our hypotheses, but it can really reduce the numbers required and emphasize to consumers that our industry cares about animals.”
If it’s true that “good things come in threes”, the 3-D device employed in pig genome research could be good news for at least three different groups: the researchers, the public and, last but not least, the pigs.