Many NIH-funded research projects rely on vertebrate and invertebrate animals to study basics of biology and physiology, to investigate pathological conditions, to build models of human disease pathways, and to design novel therapies and translational procedures. ORIP plays a vital role in the area of NIH-funded animal model research by supporting specialized animal research facilities and the development of animal models of human diseases.
ORIP encourages applications from small business concerns (SBCs) for Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) projects to develop novel engineering solutions and implement them as devices, tools, or software to improve handling of laboratory animals, to ease the management of animal facilities, and to enhance experiments which use animal models.
Different animal model species require different environmental conditions to ensure optimal health and well-being. Environmental conditions such as diet, water, air quality, and temperature alter organ function, modify cellular activity, and influence molecular reactions, and hence, affect animal physiology and behavior. Monitoring environmental conditions is an essential everyday task of a laboratory animal facility manager, to ensure the health of animals.
Novel devices and tools for such monitoring are needed to improve both the quality of animal care and the subsequent research generated from the use of animal models, including reproducibility of experimental results.
In order to consistently maintain the desired quality of air, water, and cage environment, there is a need for equipment in animal facilities to promote more efficient operational procedures. Application of novel and green technologies for controlling and managing environmental conditions in the animal facilities is particularly desired.
In parallel, a class of devices to identify types and levels of various pathogens and other contaminants in air, water, and cage liners would help with monitoring specific laboratory conditions. The level and type of infectious agents and other contaminants are factors contributing to differences in physiological responses between individual animals and between entire colonies. These and other factors are especially hard to account for in and across distant geographical locations. Improved devices and tools to monitor animal facilities would eliminate or minimize exposure of personnel and animals to pathogens or allergens; resulting in better experimental outcomes without confounding variables.
There is a related need for cost-saving devices to non-invasively or minimally-invasively monitor physiological parameters and bodily functions. This class of devices includes specialized accessories for laboratory equipment to improve the conduct and outcomes of standard procedures. Such devices should be robust, easy to use, and portable, depending on the animal model species and the functions being monitored. Connecting diet, environmental conditions, and physiological measurements gives a global picture of health and the life-history of individual animals and colonies. Properly accounting for such factors would help in controlling experimental conditions and with understanding some differences in experimental outcomes.
In addition, there is the need for novel devices and instruments to help with handling and restraining of animals. Such devices should reduce the stress to animals and also to the researcher; stress represents an experimental variable and should be controlled and minimized whenever possible.
Overall, improvements in tools and procedures which contribute to the health and well-being of laboratory animals are very important in achieving optimal experimental outcomes. There is the persistent need for better understanding of controllable factors which contribute to stress of animals. Technologically advanced devices for behavioral monitoring of animals are needed; also needed are devices that enrich the lives of laboratory animal models and promote physical activity. Similarly, there is the need for better tools for monitoring and controlling, when appropriate, the food and water intake of individual animals.
In parallel, there is the need for improved methods and devices for tagging, tracking, and monitoring individual animals. Not only will such tools aid in managing individual animals, but they should also help in overseeing entire animal colonies, managing animal husbandry, and lead to improvements in research protocols and understanding of research outcomes. To implement such goals for the management of animal colonies, there is a place for new software for combining data from different types of monitoring devices, compatible with different data formats and linkable to existing databases for different animal species.
With this FOA, ORIP encourages the SBCs to develop and implement novel tools and devices to improve animal welfare, to ease the management of individual animals and animal colonies, to improve the detection capabilities of environmental conditions (temperature, humidity, vibrations, ultrasonic noise), to help control factors in animal facilities which affect experimental conditions, and to modernize the physical infrastructure of animal facilities.
Innovation is an important component of productive engineering efforts; however, new ideas are not a sufficient factor for designing and building a useful tool. The concept of innovation in the context of engineering endeavors and non-hypothesis driven research should be understood broadly. For example, a technology which is well established in one field and adapted to a different field may open new research areas, enable novel scientific discoveries, change and improve experimental procedures, and have impact wider than its original scope. Hence, novel tools and devices should be measured by the users’ needs they fulfill, and by the overall benefits and improvements they bring to a field of science.
Hardware and software implementations of better technological solutions should bring improvements in efficiency and accuracy of animal-handling practices and experimental procedures. These new devices and tools should be durable, reliable, and easy to use and maintain. Importantly, they should offer cost-savings in purchase and operational costs.
These efforts are important for a broad class of animal research models, including but not limited to widely used model species such as fruit fly, worm, mouse, rat, zebrafish, frog, rabbit, swine, dog, and nonhuman primates. We emphasize that this FOA applies to invertebrate and vertebrate animals.
Disease-specific devices are not covered under this FOA (e.g., glucose monitors, brain probes for specific neurological conditions, or cancer imaging tools). Nor are reagents and experimental protocols appropriate for this FOA.
The development and implementation of novel equipment and enhancement of existing tools include, but are not limited to the following specific examples:
- Portable and robust software to help manage (including husbandry protocol procedures and assessment) and evaluate animal colonies;
- Cost saving and reliable non-invasive or minimally invasive technology for tracking systems for monitoring animals, that either connect to or can easily communicate with existing formats and computer databases;
- Novel automated feeding systems, compatible with tagging and tracking devices to allow quantitation of feed consumption at the individual animal level;
- Device and equipment to automate and support drug delivery by oral, subcutaneous, arterial, venous, or intracerebroventricular/intracerebral routes, and related methods to measure drug uptake and their technological implementation in species-specific devices;
- Robust and accurate devices for non-invasive measurement of physiological parameters such as heart rate and blood pressure in rodents and other species used in research;
- Improved systems for collection of multi-source data (including telemetric and extrinsic variables) and their analysis for comprehensive behavioral assessment;
- Better and cost-saving devices for phenotyping at the organismal as well as at the molecular levels;
- Social and non-social enrichment devices, including novel foraging devices and devices oriented towards challenging manipulation tasks for nonhuman primates;
- Safe and improved holding, restraining, and transfer devices for routine care, and for intra-facility transport such as large animal transfer chutes and nonhuman primate chair restraint;
- Better and cost-saving air and water filters for metabolic cages, aquaria, and other facility equipment;
- Better bedding materials (e.g., self-displaying levels of contaminants and microorganisms, odor-absorbent, recyclable);
- Better and easy to use tools and devices to measure levels of pathogens and contaminants in cages, aquaria, and facilities;
- Better disinfectant and devices/tools/equipment to sanitize and disinfect animal facility and related equipment.
Applicants are advised to discuss their projects with the Scientific/Research contacts before submitting an application.
See Section VIII. Other Information for award authorities and regulations.