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Science fiction to science fact

An ‘organ-on-a -computer-chip’ sounds a bit like science fiction. But recently, our scientists – in collaboration with the University of South Alabama and the Wyss Institute - Harvard – proved in principle that biomimetic microdevices can be created and can be useful tools in screening new medicines before they are tested in humans. This high-tech science could help uncover mechanisms involved in disease while allowing researchers to reduce their reliance on animal research in the search for new treatments.

The scientists combined tissue engineering techniques to produce a ‘lung-on-a-chip’ – a device that mimics the complicated mechanical and biochemical behaviours of a human lung. 

The incorporation of human cells on the chip offers unique capabilities beyond what is available in current animal models. Specifically, this biomimetic microsystem allows scientists to directly observe the disease process and drug responses at the cellular and molecular levels in multiple cell types present in the human lung. This is important as molecules that function one way in animals can behave differently when administered to humans (and vice versa).

More accurate, more cost-effective

The hope is that eventually these tools can produce more accurate findings for candidate medicines in humans while also reducing the reliance on animals. Currently, of the candidate drugs that make it through animal testing, only about 10% are effective in humans and make it to market.

“Given the tremendous cost of drug development and the long timelines involved, major pharmaceutical companies and government-funding agencies... are now beginning to recognise a crucial need for new technologies that can quickly and reliably predict drug safety and efficacy in humans”, the authors wrote in a paper published in the journal Science Translational Medicine.

It is possible that a similar approach could be used to predict other candidate drug efficacies and toxicities in humans. The organ-on-chip disease models could enhance our fundamental understanding of complex disease processes and enable more rapid, accurate and cost-effective ways to test new compounds.

“What has been done with lung on chip is a great step forward, but there is still a lot of work to be done to replace the safety studies we use for new medicines prior to testing in humans ,” said Kevin Thorneloe of GSK and one of the authors of the two published studies. “That being said, from a biology standpoint, the platform provides a great opportunity in some cases to elucidate mechanisms without using animals.”

Read more about the work from GSK’s Heart Failure DPU and Harvard’s Wyss Institute in Science Translational Medicine:

A Human Disease Model of Drug Toxicity–Induced Pulmonary Edema in a Lung-on-a-Chip Microdevice