Scientists from the University of Leicester have developed a brand-new technique to evaluate the toxicity of complex chemicals. This method could significantly reduce the number of animals used in biomedical research.

The procedure involves a combination of human skin cells and environmental-sensitive fluorescent dyes that react to certain chemicals in a specific way. The technique can correctly identify chemicals that are safe and chemicals that are toxic more than 90 percent of the time.

The fluorescent-based assay glows in different ways depending on what toxic chemical it interacts with. These light patterns are very distinctive, which makes them easy to recognize.

In a paper, published in Scientific Reports, the team discussed how their assay was inspired by animal senses and the techniques we have developed to simulate them. Electronic noses and tongues are already in use in industry, but the team was looking for something simpler and more versatile. The light patterns are interpreted in a similar way to how an animal brain would recognize something edible or not.

The researchers looked at complex samples made of many different chemicals. When skin cells came in contact with those substances, they responded in a certain number of chemical ways. The dyes were triggered by the cells and the researchers were able to observe their fluorescent light and work out the toxicity of the sample.

The assay strength is in the ability to deliver the complex information from the dye-skin cells system into a very simple answer: Is the substance toxic or safe?

“The latest finding is a big step not only in toxicology, providing a modern, inexpensive and more efficient in vitro method but also in development of sensor assays for rapid quantification of a wide range of analytes which has always been a great challenge faced by analytical scientists,” senior author Sergey Piletsky said in a statement. “It can also reduce the need for laboratory animals in biomedical research, pharmaceutical industry, other areas of chemical testing and health diagnostics.”

The new approach is in its infancy, but the team is confident that this could soon be used as a low-cost, quick, and sensitive method when it comes to understanding the toxicity of new chemicals.

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