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Q&A with Dr Dania Movia

Meet our School of Medicine researcher who is investigating new non-animal technologies to replace animal studies in cancer and lung toxicity research.

Dr Dania Movia is a Senior Research Fellow in the Laboratory for Biological Characterisation of Advanced Materials (LBCAM) at the Trinity Translational Medicine Institute (TTMI), associated with the Trinity St James’s Cancer Institute. She obtained her PhD at Trinity College Dublin in 2012 and was awarded a Special Purpose Certificate in Academic Practice by Trinity in 2018. Her work focuses on the development of new tools that can be used as an alternative to animal testing when studying the safety and efficacy of cancer therapies and nanomedicine products. This technology is based on human cells growing as complex, 3D cultures in a dish, outside the human body. Her long-term research vision is a world where biomedical research is animal-free, and anti-cancer drug discovery can translate treatments in a timely and cost-effective manner, ensuring that patients always get the best therapy possible. Dr Movia also lectures in the Trinity MSc in Molecular Medicine, and she is part of the School of Medicine Social Media Advisory Board. She has received support and funding from several organisations including the Irish Research Council, the Johns Hopkins Center for Alternatives to Animal Testing Award, and the European Union’s HORIZON 2020 Framework Programme.

How did you become interested in this area of research?
The controversy on the use of animals for biomedical research, a topic that often results in very polarised discussions, is what fascinates me. Many experts in the scientific community have started to report that animal models are poor representations of human diseases. These reports are supported by the evidence that results provided by animal studies do not often translate to humans. This evidence has been ultimately indicated as one of the causes for our inability to cure many clinical conditions. In light of this, national bodies across Europe and worldwide are announcing concrete proposals for significantly reducing laboratory animal use in biomedical research. But a change in how we conduct biomedical research is going to take transformational change, not only in legislation and regulations governing medical research, but also in scientists’ mind-sets and in their experimental approach. Many scientists claim in fact that it is only a matter of increasing the quality of animal models to more faithfully capture the relevant human disease. These improved animal models would be able to deliver clinical benefits to the patients. On the other side, there is a famous quote from Einstein that says, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”. So, I became intrigued regarding the approach of several scientists across the world who have argued that the only way to achieve human-relevant research and develop safe and effective drug treatments is to focus on humans, by developing new techniques capable of providing insights into human disease mechanisms.

How do you see your work impacting health?
I believe my research may play a role towards the concept of a kinder, yet more predictive, science where lung diseases (such as lung cancer) are treated more effectively while avoiding animal suffering. I champion the use of leading-edge technology to replace animal testing for the development of safe drugs, when possible. My research efforts are focused on making an impact in this direction. Most research uses animal models to study the complex mechanisms of human disease pathogenesis. Yet, I argue that the development, progression and drug response of a disease needs to be investigated in a model that is complex enough to be relevant to the in vivo (patient) scenario, but allows you complete control over the experimental variables, something that cannot be done in an animal.

What is your proudest achievement?
I am very proud of the recent results I published with the LBCAM team on a new non-animal model for lung cancer research. This model has been recognised as a promising method for respiratory disease research by the EU Reference Laboratory for Alternatives to Animal Testing. Also, there have been few milestones in my career so far that I am particularly proud of. Firstly, receiving funding from the competitive schemes run by the Irish Research Council, first as a PhD student and then as a post-doctoral researcher, has been a fantastic experience for which I am extremely grateful. Secondly, I am also quite proud of have being appointed Senior Research Fellow of the Trinity School of Medicine in 2017, just five years following my PhD. Finally, I feel extremely honoured to have been asked in 2019 to be part of the Scientific Advisory Panel of Animal-Free Research UK, a leading UK charity that funds and promotes non-animal techniques to replace animal experiments.

What is your best advice to early-stage researchers?
My first advice is - Once you have identified your real research interest, build your niche. Try to answer the following question: ‘where can I make a real difference in this research field?’ It is very important to find a research topic about which you are really passionate, and one should not be afraid to explore multiple research fields in this search. I understand that in today’s fast society, this could feel like losing time and ground when compared to other early-career researchers, but it will actually pay off in the long-term, providing a multidisciplinary background and an understanding of the topic of interest from multiple point-of-views.

If I could give advice to my younger self it would be to not shy away from questioning the status quo of your research interest, and to ask those questions out loud. Replacing animal research has long been a controversial topic in the scientific community, as the debate is often highly polarised. It can be difficult for an early-stage researcher to feel comfortable and find her/his niche in such a dynamic and disputed research field, but it is definitely worth it.

Who are/were your mentors?
Through the years, I have met several senior colleagues that have supported me, in different ways, and without them it would be unimaginable to have reached my career highlights to date. Prof Adriele Prina-Mello and Prof Yuri Volkov have been my mentors in the strictest definition of this term, and indeed my best champions throughout my post-PhD career. They always pushed me beyond my comfort zone and exposed me to all those experience that (I had no idea at the time) prepare you to achieve independence as early-career researcher. Dr Despina Bazou and Dr Jolanda Spadavecchia have also been invaluable mentors and female role models. Then there are those colleagues that do not fall directly under the ‘mentor’ category, but indeed have always supported me in such a generous way that I feel I owe them a lot. They are so many, and I would like to thank them all publicly.

When you are not in the lab, where could we find you?
Preferably in the garden, taking care of my dahlias during the summer months, or dust-covered while carrying on with the DIY-refurbishment of my home. But for daily updates just on my work as a researcher you can follow me on Instagram (https://www.instagram.com/damovia/) or on Twitter (https://twitter.com/daMovia).

To read more about the impact of Dr Movia’s work click on this link: https://www.tcd.ie/news_events/articles/trinity-researchers-drive-lung-cancer-research-toward-non-animal-models/.