Traditionally, pharmaceutical companies test their new drugs on small animals before moving on to humans. It must be a disconcerting feeling for those first human patients that the drug they’re about to ingest has previously only been given to rodents, but it’s the best process we’ve got. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the military organization behind everything from GPS to hypertext, wants to bring us into a more humane and efficient era, where drugs can be tested on "organs on a chip" that allow scientists to see exactly how substances will affect people without giving them to living, breathing humans.
We’ve written before about the Nutrichip, an artificial intestinal wall on a chip that teaches scientists how humans digest different substances. DARPA is taking the idea a step further. Last week, the organization announced multiple agreements to work on a full "human body on a chip": a $37 million grant for the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University and over $26 million for MIT’s Department of Biological Engineering (the National Institute of Health is ponying up another $6.25 million).
At MIT, researchers will work on a platform connecting 10 miniature human physiological systems in a circuit. Among the organ systems that researchers will mimic on the platform: endocrine, gastrointestinal, immune, musculoskeletal, and reproductive. According to a press release, "the goal of the program is to create a versatile platform capable of accurately predicting drug and vaccine efficacy, toxicity, and pharmacokinetics in preclinical testing."
The Harvard project will also work on a platform to connect 10 human organs on a chip, each of which will be made out of a memory stick-sized clear polymer lined with real human cells.
Why does DARPA care? This could potentially revolutionize the way pharmaceutical companies react when outbreaks hit. Instead of scrambling to produce drugs over the course of many months (what happens when there is, say, a flu outbreak), scientists could instead produce drugs much more quickly using the human body on a chip as a testbed for efficacy and side effects. Unsafe drugs will be tossed out early in the development process, while more tolerable ones will move forward.
But the usefulness of the human body on a chip goes far beyond pandemic preparedness. It could speed up development of all sorts of drugs, while at the same time preventing the deadly, unexpected side effects that occasionally pop up even after products have been commercialized.