There are numerous obstacles pharmaceutical companies face when testing and developing novel drugs to bring to market. Not only is the testing process lengthy and expensive, but countless animal lives are lost in this process, while often failing to accurately reflect the drug's effects on the human body. A microchip, engineered by scientists at the Wyss Institute, has the capability to change this classic model of drug testing and development.
The organ-on-a-chip is a clear microchip about the size of a memory stick. Inside, a membrane of living human cells lung and capillary cells in the case of the lung-on-a-chip lines channels that allow for air and blood flow. In order to better observe mechanisms of disease, scientists insert bacteria into the air channel and white blood cells into the blood channel to study the biological outcome that mimics the effects of a reaction to an infection. Human physiology can be even more closely recreated through the breathing capability of the chip; whereby a vacuum is introduced in to the flexible device to stimulate the natural movements of a lung cell.
In addition to disease mechanisms, applications of this chip include identifying drug pathways and relevant biomarkers that can be used in clinical research. Through slight moderations of chip channels and membrane composition, research possibilities are countless. In August 2013, the FDA announced its backing of a specific study researching the effects of radiation damage on the gut, bone and lungs, followed by the testing of drugs that counteract this damage.
Ultimately, the next goal is to create multiple organs-on-chips, which can be connected such that the whole human physiology model is mimicked. This concerted system would then provide information on efficacy and validity of drug candidates throughout the body, providing opportunity for saving significant research spending as well as animal lives. Regardless, this fascinating device has the strong potential to entirely change the way drugs are created and tested, as well as greatly impact pharmaceutical, medical and environmental markets in the future.