A new way to test the safety of the air we breathe is proving faster, cheaper and more humane than exposing laboratory animals to airborne chemical hazards, say UNSW scientists.

Researchers at the University's Chemical Safety and Applied Toxicology Laboratories in the School of Safety Science have developed an animal-free alternative that exposes living human cells to air pollutants inside a small portable chamber. The breakthrough could fast-track scientific understanding of the threat to human health posed by thousands of airborne chemical compounds.

The new in-vitro technique pioneered by Dr Amanda Hayes and her UNSW colleagues, Shahnaz Bakand and Chris Winder, directly exposes human cells to airborne toxicants and measures cytotoxic effects. The cells are grown on a porous polyester membrane inside a small diffusion chamber and then exposed to selected toxic air pollutants. After as little as one hour's exposure, they can study cell growth and metabolism, and a range of routine toxicological endpoints.

Importantly, the toxic measurements obtained by the in-vitro method, such as the amount of a contaminant needed to inhibit cell growth, mirror well-established lethal values obtained from animal studies - a long-established method in toxicological studies.

"In-vitro toxicity tests can improve the scientific, economic, and ethical value of research and play a significant role in the screening of toxic chemicals and the replacement of animals," Dr Hayes says.

This research earned Hayes and her colleagues the 2006 Australian Museum Voiceless Eureka Prize for Research. This prize rewards scientists for work that has reduced the use of animals or animal products in laboratory-based research, education and testing. For more information, visit the Voiceless website.

Media Contacts: Dr Amanda Hayes, 93854200, 0403 028 747. Dan Gaffney, UNSW media unit, 0411 156 015.