The US National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS) has awarded 17 grants to create artificial organs for drug screening. These complex mini-machines are generally the size of a microscope slide or smaller, and are often connected to all sorts of tubes and wires to help to mimic human physiology. A lung on a chip, for example, puts blood-vessel cells on one side of a membrane and lung-tissue cells on the other. Tiny pumps and vacuums model breathing and blood flow.
(See Nature’s ‘Tissue Models: A living system on a chip‘.)
Funded projects include models of skin, lung, gut, liver and brain. The full list can be found here.
The hope is that these chips can provide a reliable, inexpensive way to study human disease, in part by allowing different types of cells to interact and by mimicking the three-dimensional environment that cells inhabit in intact tissues. In typical, flat cell cultures, cells do not function the way they would in the body.
The US Food and Drug Administration will help to explore how this new technology might be used to predict safety before potential new drugs are tested in humans. Studies in animals are still considered essential, but are expensive and can be unreliable. Rats, for example, can handle some toxins that poison humans. According to figures cited by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), some 30% of experimental medications that have failed in human trials were found to have toxicities even after promising results in animal models.
The initiative marks the first inter-agency collaboration launched by NCATS, whose creation last year stirred controversy.
The NIH plans to contribute up to US$70 million over five years. The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is also participating, funding two projects that take a suite of artificial organs and link them together. The Wyss Institute at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, for example, may receive up to $37 million from an agreement with DARPA.