July 1, 2006 A new kind of microchip can host human cells to mimic the reaction of different tissues in the body. The chip could help reduce the need for animal testing, and lower the cost of developing new pharmaceuticals. Medical researchers are using it to study the effect of chemotherapy drugs on cancer cells.
ITHACA, N.Y.-- As we all know, pharmaceuticals are not cheap. Part of the reason is, developing the right formula is a process that can cost more than a billion dollars. This biomedical engineer at Cornell University found a way that could revolutionize the way drugs are tested -- and help make them cheaper.
The new body-on-a-chip device mimics the body's reactions. It is lined with human cells and reacts the way organs would when exposed to environmental chemicals or drugs. The yellow dye shows how the body reacts. Cornell biomedical engineer Michael Shuler says this surrogate human has many advantages, like lowering the astronomical expense it takes to test a drug.
"Anywhere from $800 million to $1.5 billion. A lot of that cost is not for that particular drug, but for all the other drugs, which were developed in parallel, which don't work," Shuler tells DBIS.
Johnson & Johnson is looking at the body on a chip for commercial use. Today, students are using the chip to test drugs to help cancer patients.
Daniel Tatosian, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at Cornell, says, "These are cancers that have developed some sort of resistance mechanisms that have allowed them to survive chemotherapy, and they can thrive in the human body."
The results are promising, and the microchip allows for these tests with fewer animal studies.
"Reducing the amount of animals used to test compounds for human benefit is of great importance. It's a humanistic goal, and using our device you can reach that," Tatosian tells DBIS.
With potential to help in the fight for cancer, lead to more effective drug testing, and reduce animal studies, this body-on-a-chip is proving good things do come in small packages.
BACKGROUND: Cornell medical engineer Michael Shuler has developed a "body on a chip" that can take the place of the human body when it comes to testing new drugs or cosmetics. The chip would also make it easier to customize drug treatments for patients. Incorporating cells from a patient into the chip would help physicians determine which option would work best.
IMPROVED DRUG DESIGN: A drug's effect depends less on what it's made of than on the way it navigates through the body: being broken down by the liver, absorbed by the intestines and stored in fat cells. There are more than 10,000 possible drug compounds, and it can be difficult to determine which combinations are the most promising investments. Currently, only about one-tenth of the drugs that go through human trials find their way into marketable products. The body-on-a-chip could reduce the need for animal testing, and do a better job of steering the right drugs to human trials. This would make it cheaper to develop drugs while increasing the number of effective drugs that reach the market each year.
HOW IT WORKS: Tiny labs-on-a-chip have been on the market for several years, but thus is the first that essentially functions as a living body. Normally, cells grown in the lab don't work quite the same outside the body as they do inside the body, making it difficult to effectively simulate responses. The device is the size of a postage stamp and is etched with chambers and channels lined with living tissue. When pumped through with artificial blood laced with test drugs, this torso-on-a-chip can highlight both harmful and beneficial effects other tests miss.
ABOUT MICROFLUIDICS: Microfluidics studies how fluids behave at microscopic levels: volumes of water, for example, that are thousands of times smaller than a single droplet. At these size scales, tiny effects that wouldn't be noticeable on a large scale play a much larger role. By understanding these effects, scientists can use them manipulate fluids on the microscopic scale. This has led to such beneficial technologies as ink jet printers and labs-on-a-chip for fast and cheap DNA sequencing.
Editor's Note: This article is not intended to provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.