The use of animals remains a vital feature of modern research, allowing scientists to model and interrogate key aspects of disease. There are however limitations when mapping animal biology and behaviour to humans, many of which are blamed for poor translation from pre-clinical research to the patient. A new company, Cambridge Phenotyping Ltd., aims to tackle several of the common issues plaguing rodent behavioural work, with their novel automated and AI-assisted ‘smart-Kage’ technology.
“So just imagine that you have your mouse, which has received no training. You put it in the cage, close it up and walk away, that's it,” explains lead developer of the technology and CEO of the new company, Dr Julija Krupic. “And the system does all the testing for you, 24/7, with the data put out in near real time so you can run all the analysis that same day.”
If you have spent even a day performing a rodent behavioural task, the process Dr Krupic describes, will no doubt be music to your ears. Assessing the change to an animal’s behaviour should be one of the best methods for tracking the onset, progression and perhaps treatment of a disease, and crucially relating that to a human condition. This is especially true for a long, progressive disease like Alzheimer’s but, as Dr Krupic discovered, the protocols currently established often come up short.
“It became very clear to us that we didn’t have good criteria to define the onset, middle and end of disease in these Alzheimer’s models. We were trying our best but still picking arbitrary timepoints. What we really needed was very stable, continuous testing of our animals.”
Setting out to develop a solution, Dr Krupic, a physics graduate, teamed up with Dr Marius Bauza, a Senior Research Fellow at the Sainsbury Wellcome Centre. Funded by a collaborative grant from UK DRI Director Prof Bart De Strooper, what emerged was a 50 x 50 x 50cm cube, dubbed the ‘smart-Kage’, as Dr Krupic discusses.
“It’s a very similar environment to other cages from the mouse’s perspective. It has a nest, water bottle, scattered food pellets and environmental enrichment like a running wheel. The main difference is a large, fixed camera built into the lid which records footage of the mouse, later analysed by the artificial intelligence system.
There are several advantages to the set-up. Firstly, animal work is labour intensive, especially if you have to spend weeks training the rodent to perform new tasks. Here you can put the mouse in and basically begin behavioural assessment immediately. The handsfree approach also removes factors that interfere with results such as stress brought about by unnecessary handling and food deprivation protocols sometimes required in training. In addition to continuous monitoring, which we’ve tested in a proof-of-concept for 12 months, we have in-cage infrared lights set up to control important light-dark cycles as rodents are nocturnal. For all of these reasons and more, we hope the system is a much more efficient, smart method for long-term behavioural assessment.”