Team:UniGE-Geneva/Human Practices

Unige iGEM 2019

Human practices

"Human Practices is the study of how your work affects the world, and how the world affects your work." — Peter Carr, Director of Judging


From the beginning of our project, we had the will to use our project to provide an efficient and ethical solution to a societal problem in the long term. Our various brainstorming sessions have led us to focus on a problem that the scientific community has been dealing with for several years ago : animal experimentation for drug discovery. However, to find a solution that can significantly change societal behaviours, we were aware that our project has to be commercially viable.

Ethical and public health concerns on animal experimentation

From both a legal and ethical point of view, animal experimentation is a matter of active debate. A major bioethics problem is raised by animal experimentation: is it morally wrong to cause animal suffering? This is a reason why some animal experimentation may cause moral problems, especially when it is about testing potentially harmful compounds or inducing cancer for oncology drug development. Beyond that, it is a question that affects the scientific community and the pharmaceutical industry because animal models are necessary to predict for example the effects of compounds on human physiology since they reflect a mammalian organism in its entirety. Before a candidate drug reaches clinical trials, there is still no better compromise than testing it first on mice before treating patients. Indeed, drug discovery is an absolute necessity for public health but it cannot be made at the expense of human lives. Also, animal models are currently essential for the evolution of knowledge in medicine and life sciences. However, it is ethically important to find alternative methods with a similar physiological relevance that can be used to refine, reduce or replace (the 3Rs) some animal experimentation.

Increasing the physiological relevance of cell culture to foster the 3Rs

Cell culture is currently the only in vitro alternative to animal testing, and is therefore encouraged by the World Health Organization and the US Food and Drug Administration. However, cell culture does not recapitulate the physiological organization of tissues. This affects the transfer of knowledge acquired from cells to medical or pharmacological applications on patients. Now and in the future, it seems essential to improve methods of cell culture so that they have higher physiological relevance, especially making it possible for drug discovery to evaluate compounds with a high level of physiological relevance but without requiring the use a sentient organism. The communication between different tissues and organs is the main aspect of the physiology of animal models that we wished to recapitulate in our novel in vitro cell co-culture methods. The question that we asked ourselves is how to shape these inter-tissue communications in vitro? By attempting to answer this question, we thought about the Fluosphera project. It allows cell co-culture with the capacity to observe drug effects on different tissues while integrating the interactions between them. The main advantage is that the project consists of a customizable toolbox that can be adapted to the needs of a specific drug test (cell types, cellular activities or types of chemical compounds). Beyond animal experimentation, our subject also relates to one of the Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations : Good Health and Well-Being, by proposing a new technique that can be used to improve the quality of medicines by optimally detecting efficient drugs.

Evaluation of the ethical aspect of Fluosphera

To determine the ethical and scientific viability of our project, we were fortunate enough to be mentored by Prof. Didier Picard and Prof. Aurélien Roux, who joined our team as Principal Investigators, allowing us to benefit from their scientific expertise.

University of Geneva 3Rs Award

Our project is totally in agreement with the principle of 3Rs (Replace, Reduce, Refine) regarding animal experimentation since our method aims to refine and/or reduce the use of animals by providing a biological relevance close to the animal model. Therefore, we had the honor of being in contact with Mrs Marjolaine Philit, director of animal experimentation at the University of Geneva, for the 3Rs Award from the University of Geneva ( which is a prize that promotes research projects with great scientific value and with significant contribution to the 3Rs. We will present our project at the end of October 2019 to get her advice about the best way to use our method in the light of the 3Rs effort.

Evaluation of the commercial aspect of Fluosphera

To protect the ideas on our new concept, we have initiated measures to protect our intellectual property relatively early during the data generation phase. The patent drafting process was co-ordinated by UNITEC, our technology transfer office, which is a team of professionals combining research, law, business and culminating more than 35 years of industrial experience. In particular, we were able to work with them on aspects related to the of market evaluation of the invention, the potential commercial strategy to follow and the protection of the intellectual property. It is precisely on their advice that we limited communication about our project to avoid public disclosure. We were able to file provisional patent was filed on September 24, 2019, and it was from that date that we were able to communicate more details about the exact nature of our project.

Global impact on society

We would like to create a drug-testing toolbox that can measure the effects of multiple interdependent biological activities with physiological relevance. By mimicking physiological conditions that occur in vivo, our goal is to improve in vitro drug testing to reduce the reliance on animal experimentation, as well as increase the efficiency and accuracy of drug screening.

Expert feedback

Communications of our project to the scientific community and to the broad public


In January, two supervisors from our team participated in the i-Teams Translational Accelerator program, which involved developing a product idea based on co-culturing cells in 3D. This allowed us to understand, prior to developing our current I.P. and proposed product, whether it co-culture based in vitro drug testing might have a possible impact on public health. The various feedback we received during the i-Teams program helped us to modulate our research and product development path, and provided us multiple confirmations of strong interest from the pharmaceutical industry in this type of technology.


The swissnex Network is an initiative of the State Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation and is part of the Confederation’s overseas network. Swissnex is managed by the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs. Thus, we have the great honor of having been contacted by the Boston-based swissnex group who have invited us to present our project to their team on the evening of November 4th 2019 at their Boston office. Participating to this meeting is a real opportunity for our team to understand the viability of, and interest in our project, via feedback from an audience composed of international and interdisciplinary professionals.

Innovation Day

We had the great honor of selected to pitch our projects at a clinical Innovation Day, which is an opportunity to communicate innovative ideas and projects at the Geneva University Hospitals (HUG) and University of Geneva. The event fosters interactions and sharing of experiences and provides a springboard for project development and commercialization of the best projects. The choice of projects is based on specific criteria: innovation and creativity, potential benefit to patients and institutions, scientific quality as well as the potential for commercialization or development. The Innovation Centre team and a committee of experts, composed of a dozen members - external partners, medical innovation specialists, representatives of the medical and nursing community, patients - are available to support the project development before, during and after the Innovation Day. Thus, during our presentation to the committee on October 8th, we were able to get the feedback of professionals and their opinion on the scientific and commercial viability of our project. Notably, they informed us that potential clients linked to local institutes including hospitals or environmental agencies might not be the best market targets. Indeed, the use of our method would depends on regulatory audits to officially integrate it as a new procedure for diagnosis or quality control. The Innovation Day meeting will be held on October 31st, 2019, in Geneva (Switzerland) and Dr. Grégory Ségala will stay in Geneva to represent the team on this day. This meeting will allow us to assess the scientific and commercial relevance of our project in front of a broad audience from the hospital environment, but also patients and Swiss citizens.

Symposium of the translational research centre in OncoHaematology

"Bridging the gap between basic science and clinical practice"

This symposium aims at tightening the links between the different research groups and encouraging interactions between clinicians and researchers. During this symposium (October 14th, 2019) we presented our project through the presentation of our poster, as well as by participating in various round table discussions. One of them on the theme of ‘Immunotherapy’ concluded that new methods should be developed to investigate the effectiveness, synergy, and toxicity of combinations of existing anti-cancer drugs. These new methods include in silico modeling, humanised mouse models, and importantly in vitro organoid and spheroid cell cultures that better recapitulate human in vivo biology better than conventional 2D monolayer drug testing cell cultures. Overall, this symposium was very useful for us as it allowed us to discuss our project with different health professionals and researchers, and to get their expert advice.