Cruelty-Free Safety Testing

Researchers hoping to get a look at how human bodies work may have a new tool to help them understand. A Federal program has been launched with 17 grants totaling $70 million to be put toward research into simulating organs with computer technology. The program, which initially is expected to have uses in drug testing, will allow study of how organs work on the molecular level, without the need for animal testing.

Scientists already use the silicon substitutes, but they are crude and simple simulations that only allow studies of specific cells within organs. Often, these are flat structures, and cells in them work differently—in ways that are not always predictable—from how they work in the body. Under the new program, techniques from the computer industry would be used in conjunction with modern tissue engineering to put hardware mimicking living organ tissues together in three dimensions on a transparent microchip. These chips, lined with living cells and no bigger than a house key, would give an unprecedentedly realistic look at how organs function biologically.

These tissue chips would be tested with chemicals the safety of which in humans has already been determined. That would allow researchers identify the most reliable drug safety signals, in order to predict the safety of potential drugs. This safety testing is currently the the purpose of controversial animal testing.

Often condemned as cruel, animal testing is not wholly useless, because of the resemblance of some animal physiology to that of humans. However, the resemblance is imperfect, and more than 30 percent of drugs expected to be effective on the basis of animal tests prove not to be in humans. Tissue chips would help find toxic trugs earlier in the development process by testing them in a virtual human body.

Grant recipients include Harvard University, the Morgridge Institute for Research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Duke University, Vanderbilt University, Cornell University, Johns Hopkins University and the University of California-Berkeley. The Harvard study, at the Wyss Institute, will build on prior research on hearts, lungs, and intestines, improving current flat chips used there.

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