Imagining a world where thousands upon thousands of animals no longer suffer in biomedical research and drugs actually help the people they’re meant to save may not be as far off a dream as it seems with the development of ‘organ chips.’
A $70 million research project that will develop transparent silicon microchips with hollow channels that contain actual living human tissue and pumps to replicate organ function is underway and is predicted to provide faster, cost-effective and more accurate results for testing diseases, toxins and pharmaceuticals – all on something about the size of a flash drive.
The ‘Tissue Chip for Drug Testing’ program is being funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).
“More than 30 percent of promising medications have failed in human clinical trials because they are determined to be toxic despite promising pre-clinical studies in animal models. Tissue chips, which are a newer human cell-based approach, may enable scientists to predict more accurately how effective a therapeutic candidate would be in clinical studies,” according to the NIH.
While chips are already being used in some areas, this project intends improve upon existing test measures – cell cultures, human and animal testing – and overcome the limits of individual chips by creating and combining multiple chips to emulate the entire human body, in addition to designing software that can control and analyze different functions.
The Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University has entered into an agreement with DARPA to develop an automated instrument that integrates 10 human organs-on-chips and link them together to create a human-on-a-chip. They’ve already got gut-on-a-chip, which mimics digestive functions, and are working on the heart, bone marrow and kidneys.
Researchers at Vanderbilt University will be working on a ‘microbrain reactor,’ which is intended to provide new insights into how the brain receives, alters and is affected by drugs. Researchers there plan on studying the biology of stroke and what role the brain plays in obesity by using tissue samples from affected patients.
“The ability to apply these precious samples entrusted to us by patients to a platform where we can literally measure hundreds of parameters is a dream come true,” said team member BethAnn McLaughlin, assistant professor of neurology and member of the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center, who adds that there is not a single drug that has gotten FDA approval to protect the human brain from a stroke.
“Given the differences in cellular biology in the brains of rodents and humans, development of a brain model that contains neurons and all three barriers between blood, brain and cerebral spinal fluid, using entirely human cells, will represent a fundamental advance in and of itself,” said John Wikswo, the Gordon A. Cain University Professor and director of the Vanderbilt Institute for Integrative Biosystems Research and Education (VIIBRE), who is orchestrating the multidisciplinary effort.
Cornell University, Johns Hopkins University and the University of California-Berkeley will also be participating.
The project isn’t just exciting for the scientific community and patients who are waiting for that medical breakthrough they desperately need to live either, but is also a welcome advance from those who want to see the end of the suffering of animals used in biomedical research.
“This is an exciting example of how modern-day innovation can produce a humane and more reliable approach to understanding the inner workings of human disease without the need for animal suffering. The USA appears to be leading the way in funding alternatives, it is now time for the UK to catch up,” said Dr. Katy Taylor, scientific adviser for the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection.