A small, clear plastic chip with red and blue 'veins' could end, or at least drastically decrease, drug testing on animals.
The chips are designed to mimic human organs, and allow researchers to experiment with different drugs. The lung-on-a-chip, for example, has tiny channels for oxygen and blood. The channels are separated by a moving membrane of lung cells which imitates the tightening and lengthening of lung tissue when we breathe. With this chip, researchers can introduce diseases and treatments, and observe how the blood and lung cells respond.
The technology is not new, Harvard scientists at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering have been working on it for five years, but this July a start-up company to commercialize these organ chips was launched.
This could be good news for animals. Every year, more than 100 million frogs, cats, dogs, rats, mice and rabbits are used for different experiments. But animals have different metabolisms, structures and body functions than humans, so testing on them does not always give an accurate indication of how effective drugs will be for humans. The scientists working on the organs-on-a-chip say their technology would solve this problem.
"Fewer animals will be needed and fewer failures in clinical trials," Dr. George Church, one of the researchers from Havard working on the chips, told TreeHugger. He added that the organs-on-a-chip will be able to test more personalized therapies based on a persons' physiology. Once more organ chips (like skin) are developed, chips will be linked to one another to better replicate the human body in miniature form.
The chips are not a be-all end-all solution for drug trials. Like any technology, there is room for improvement, and there is more than one solution to a problem.
"The body is incredibly efficient," Thomas Hartung, director for the Center for Alternatives to Animal Studies at Johns Hopkins told Fast Company. "It's very difficult to reproduce this."
Hartung is working on his own methods for developing animal testing alternatives. He and his team are creating models that will mimic the body's response to chemicals.“We are learning more and more that mice and rats don’t predict humans," he added.
Though there is reason to be optimistic, it will be a while before animals are out of the picture. Animal testing is deeply embedded in medical trials and FDA approvals, so investments will need to shift away from animal trials for a significant change to take place.