Animals and humans often don’t respond to drugs in the same way—in fact, only one in every 50 drugs found safe for animals provide any benefit to humans.
Meanwhile, hundreds of pharmaceutical companies continue to test drugs on animals, despite a rapidly growing movement to discourage the practice.
Eager to help speed the process along, a team of U.S. scientists got to work inventing a robotic replacement for lab animals that behaves, and reacts, more like a human.
Lead scientist Michael Schuler, formerly with Cornell University, and Dr. James Hickman of the University of Central Florida, created the “Body-on-a-Chip” by taking tissue from human cells and placing them on an electronic chip that’s able to simulate the effects of experimental drugs on humans — including potential side effects.
Essentially, it is a micro-scale model of the human body, with small elements of tissue from various parts of the human body strategically organized around different areas of the chip, causing it to respond the same way a human organ or body system would when exposed to a new drug.
Their innovation won the team a 2015 Lush Prize for science, part of a $690,000 award established by Lush Cosmetics to promote scientific methods and the implementation of policies that replace animal experiments. The company is known for its own humane practices and its hands-on approach to helping other companies do the same.
Now, the team’s research has led them to incorporate as an official biotech start-up company called Hesperos, with the aim of bringing the chip to market.
Schuler says they have contracts with two companies and are in “serious discussions” with several others. The system, he said, will lower preclinical costs in bringing new drugs to market.
Producing a better alternative that’s also cheaper than animal testing could go a long way in rolling back the practice—if we could just get the U.S. laws requiring use of animals in preclinical testing to disappear.
“The FDA is interested in the technology, so I hope it will see this as a equal or better technology to animal tests,” Schuler said.
For Schuler (pictured above with his Lush Prize Trophy in the shape of a bunny), the comparison hits close to home.
“Initially, I was inspired by my oldest daughter, who has Down Syndrome. Due to the extra chromosome in people with the condition, drugs developed for the general population don’t always work as well for people with Down Syndrome,” he said.
“Part of my quest was to find a new system that works for people like her, something animal testing has failed to do.”
The new chip, he maintains, has the potential to succeed where animal testing has fallen short.
Photo credits: USDA, Hickman Hybrid SystemShare this article: