Meet IFER Fellowship Recipient Alan Kim

IFER Alan2

In this month’s NAVS News, we’d like to introduce you to Alan Kim, a 2021-22 recipient of the International Foundation for Ethical Research (IFER) Graduate Fellowship for Alternatives to the Use of Animals in Science.

Alan’s project involves creating a human cell-based model to study synaptogenesis, the formation of synapses between neurons. Synapses are structures that allow neurons to communicate with one another and their formation is believed to be disrupted in neurodevelopmental disorders, like autism spectrum disorders.

There has been an increase in the prevalence of neurodevelopmental diseases over the past several decades. While there are many theories as to why this has been occurring, one prevailing theory is that there has been an increase in early childhood exposures to neurotoxic chemicals.

“Many governmental testing agencies, such as the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency], have developed methods to test for neurotoxicity in chemicals,” Alan noted. “Unfortunately, many of these tests have the same flaw—they are based on animal models.”  These neurotoxicity tests involve over a thousand mouse or rat pups, take months of time to complete and millions of dollars— just to generate data on one chemical.

Not only does this approach lead to a huge backlog of chemicals to be tested, it generates questionable data, as there are issues with applying data generated from animals to humans.

“By providing regulatory agencies with alternative human cell-based in vitro systems,” Alan noted, “we can provide them data that better reflects the realities of human exposures and human health outcomes.”

This led Alan to develop alternatives to neurotoxicity testing that didn’t rely on animal models.

“Thankfully, the lab I work with, the Center for Alternatives to Animal Testing, already have their own in-house 3D human stem cell-based model in order to model brain organoid systems,” Alan said. “I‘ve been able to take that model and add on to it and innovate in order to fit the needs that we have for our neurotoxicity endpoints.”

Alan is working with human induced pluripotent stem cells and genetically editing them to express different fluorescent tags. He is differentiating those cells into neurons and other cell types of the nervous system and growing the cells into 3D brain organoids. 

The genes that were inserted into the cells enable the labeling of pre- and post-synaptic markers with different fluorescent tags. Alan will use image analysis to identify synapses based on where these markers co-localize and will investigate whether chemicals can disrupt synaptogenesis during the development of the brain organoid model.

Alan is thankful to have received funding from IFER to conduct his studies.

“I’d like to sincerely thank IFER and their sponsors for making it possible for me to continue my research…I’m so thankful you’ve had the confidence in me as a student and a researcher to provide me that support.” We’re honored to count Alan among the growing number of NAVS/IFER fellowship recipients who are leading the next generation of humane scientists and wish him well on his research.