Bridging the Opportunity Divide

Could This Device Eliminate the Need for Medical Testing on Animals?

September 9, 2014
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Could This Device Eliminate the Need for Medical Testing on Animals?
Animal testing remains an unpredictable guide to how a drug will react in humans. China Photos/Getty Images
The new startup Emulate is set to commercialize the “organs-on-chips” technology.

Do you have any idea how long it can take to get a medication from the research and development stage to a pharmacy shelf?

The answer: Way too long. The process of testing potential pharmaceuticals is expensive and arduous — a potential drug can take over a decade of animal and human trials and a billion dollars before being approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) — which has caused what’s known in the industry as a “pharmaceutical ice-age.” There’s more research than ever, but less medications are becoming available to patients. And even if a drug is approved, side effects that weren’t detected in tests can pull it off the market.

So for years, Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering and its director, Dr. Donald Ingber, have been working to improve the process. With funding from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the FDA and the National Institute of Health, Ingber’s team has developed cell-culture devices the size of a thumb drive with real human tissues that can mimic 10 different human organs as well as a simulated circulatory system between them, according to The Guardian.

This technology allows them to model how a particular drug will behave in the human body as a whole. From this technology, they even hope to someday use stem cells to test how a drug will actually function in a specific patient’s body.

Even better? Emulate’s chips could eliminate the need for animal testing. Which, despite being mandated by regulation, is a fairly unreliable indicator of a drug’s success in people. (Not to mention its condemnation by animal rights activists on the grounds of cruelty.) Dr. Geraldine A. Hamilton, who works with Ingber, says, “Animals can fail to predict in humans how drugs will work. Different animal species may give you different answers as to whether a drug is toxic for humans.”

With new ideas like what’s coming out of Emulate, the prognosis of health care is a good one.

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