Microchip that mimics breathing offers new way to test cancer drugs

By mimicking the way oxygen reaches the blood, device offers new way to test drugs

PUBLISHED : Friday, 09 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 09 November, 2012, 3:27am

US researchers have begun testing drugs using a microchip lined with living cells that replicates many of the features of a human lung, a technology that may one day help improve drug testing and reduce researchers' dependence on animal studies.

In 2010, researchers at Harvard's Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering developed the "lung-on-a-chip technology that mimics alveoli, the air sacs which transfer oxygen through a thin membrane from the lung to the blood.

For drug companies, the artificial-organ technology offers a way to better predict how drugs will work, ultimately reducing the cost of development by identifying problems before they are tested in clinical trials.

"Major pharmaceutical companies spend a lot of time and a huge amount of money on cell cultures and animal testing to develop new drugs, but these methods often fail to predict the effects of these agents when they reach humans," said Dr Donald Ingber, whose study was published on Wednesday in Science Translational Medicine.

Now the Wyss team is putting its artificial lung to the test, using the device to recreate pulmonary oedema, a condition that causes fluid to leak into the air sacs of the lungs, and then treating it with an experimental drug from GlaxoSmithKline.

The device, which is about the size of a memory stick, is made of a flexible polymer that contains hollow channels.

Dr Geraldine Hamilton, co-author on the paper and the senior lead for the organs-on-chips program at Wyss, said the study is "providing us with a very exciting proof of concept for our ability to use organs on chips to create human disease models. We learned more about the mechanisms by which this happens. That really wouldn't have been possible through an animal model."