Many medications and treatments, even after years of research, fail in the final phase of review — when they’re actually tested in humans. Despite having performed well in the lab, in mice, and perhaps in closer human analogues like monkeys, drugs occasionally turn out to be ineffective or toxic when used by the humans they’re meant to help. To improve this process, and limit the risks to human testers, the National Institutes of Health and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency are together pledging up to up to $132 million for creating “organ-on-a-chip” systems, with the eventual goal of simulating the entire human body.
The tissue-chip project is a natural outgrowth (so to speak) of existing lab testing on human tissue. Each of the projects being funded is aimed at isolating a small, living piece of a human being. It may be just a few cells, but those cells would grow and function as if they were in their native habitat, the human body. And surrounding those cells would be sensors for detecting microscopic changes in the test environment.
Each type of cell and organ must be approached differently: Brain cells exist in an environment vastly different from muscles or the liver. Consequently, the funding is spread over a number of institutions and programs, some of which are specializing in just one type of tissue or organ.
Vanderbilt University, for instance, will be receiving up to $2.1 million from the NIH’s $70 million allocation, for the creation of what they call a “microbrain reactor.” It would put human brain cells into an artificial environment that not only keeps them alive, but simulates the physiological barriers that protect the brain from contaminants in blood and other fluids. John Wikswo, who is leading Vanderbilt’s effort, is enthusiastic about the research:
“Given the differences in cellular biology in the brains of rodents and humans, development of a brain model that contains neurons and all three barriers between blood, brain and cerebral spinal fluid, using entirely human cells, will represent a fundamental advance in and of itself.”
Much more information on the project and its multidisciplinary lineup of researchers can be found in Vanderbilt’s news release.