Current checks to establish whether a new drug is carcinogenic can be inconclusive and require further testing on live animals to establish whether they are harmful or not.
Dr Richard Walmsley and colleagues at the University spin-out company he founded, Gentronix, have developed techniques using cultured human cells to more effectively weed out cancer-causing compounds.
"The current pre-animal tests that are used are highly sensitive and so most carcinogens are identified," said Dr Walmsley, who is based in the Faculty of Life Sciences.
"Unfortunately, such tests have poor specificity and a lot of safe compounds are also wrongly identified as potential carcinogens. This means that animal testing is still carried out, in case such compounds turn out to be safe.
"The testing process developed at Gentronix has proven very reliable at telling us whether a drug will cause cancer but some chemicals, called promutagens, only become carcinogenic once they have passed through the body's liver.
"This grant will help us develop new non-animal experiments to identify these other toxic compounds and so reduce the need for animal testing."
The funding ?awarded by the National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research (NC3Rs) ?will help the scientists establish new genotoxicity tests using cultured human liver cells.
It is hoped the new test will not only reduce the number of compounds that are tested on animals but also ensure harmless chemicals that could prove to be useful new drugs are not falsely labelled as carcinogens.
"I don't believe that animal testing will disappear from drug safety assessment in the short term as you can't ask human volunteers to take novel drugs straight from testing done in tube tests," said Dr Walmsley.
"But if we can refine the pre-animal tests and increase people's confidence in them, then we will be able to reduce the number of chemicals that are tested on live animals."