The National Institutes of Health is funding a major new project to replace vivisection experiments with “organ chips” – silicon chips that can contain real human tissue and provide faster, cheaper and more accurate results for testing diseases, toxins and pharmaceuticals.
In its announcement, the NIH admits what anti-vivisection organizations have been arguing for years: Nonhuman animals are not good models for seeing how a drug or procedure will work on humans. Almost one in three that appear successful when tested on other animals turn out not to work on humans.
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.
Silicon chips are already in use for testing various products. But the new $70 million research project will develop a whole new generation of these that can, among other things, a kind of “human-on-a-chip” that combines multiple chips that can emulate the entire human body and work with software to analyze different functions.
The Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University has already built a gut-on-a-chip that can be lined with living human cells to mimic the structure, physiology, and mechanics of the human intestine – even supporting the growth of living microbes.
In another example, a team at Vanderbilt University is developing a device that could take a tiny amount of brain tissue (about a millionth of a brain) and squeeze it into a chamber the size of a grain of rice, link it to a second chamber filled with cerebral spinal fluid, and create a microenvironment that enables researchers to see how the cells respond when exposed to medications, toxins, disease organisms, etc.
“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.
One group working on the brain model will be setting out to study the biology of stroke and the role the brain plays in obesity. They will put cells from selected patients in the bioreactors and quantify how they respond to different treatments.
“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. “We have enormous challenges in developing therapeutics to protect the brain from injury and this is a profound unmet need. Not a single drug has passed FDA approval to protect the brain from stroke, and we only have one that breaks up clots. We need to do better.”
And we need to do better than forcing mice, monkeys and other animals to become morbidly obese and then “treat” them in an effort to find cures to health conditions that are essentially unknown in almost any species except humans – especially when it turns out that the new drugs and procedures don’t even work on humans.