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3D printed chip shows potential to end need for animal testing

The plastic device with compartments replicating major organs, developed by scientists from the University of Edinburgh, could also speed up patients’ access to new medicines

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According to The Guardian, scientists from the University of Edinburgh have developed a pioneering 3D printed device that could speed up patient access to new medicines and eliminate the need for animal testing. The “body-on-chip” perfectly mimics how a medicine flows through a patient’s body, and the plastic device means scientists can test drugs to see how different organs react without the need for live animal testing.

The plastic device is the first of its kind in the world. Made using a 3D printer, the chip’s five compartments replicate the human heart, lungs, kidney, liver, and brain – connected by channels that mimic the human circulatory system, through which new drugs can be pumped. It uses positron emission tomography (PET) scanning to produce detailed 3D images showing what is going on inside the tiny organs. “The PET imagery is what allows us to ensure the flow [of new drugs being tested] is even,” said Liam Carr, the inventor of the device.

PET scanning involves injecting tiny amounts of radioactive compounds into the chip to transmit signals to an extremely sensitive camera, allowing scientists to better assess the effect of new drugs.

“This device is the first to be designed specifically for measuring drug distribution, with an even flow paired with organ compartments that are large enough to sample drug uptake for mathematical modeling. Essentially, allowing us to see where a new drug goes in the body and how long it stays there, without having to use a human or animal to test it,” said Carr. “The platform is completely flexible and can be a valuable tool to investigate various human diseases, such as cancer, cardiovascular diseases, neurodegenerative diseases, and immune diseases. Because of this flexibility, the uses are bound only by the availability of these cell models, and the scientific questions we can think of. For example, we could have a fatty liver disease model in the device and use this to see how having a diseased liver affects other organs such as the heart, brain, kidneys, etc, and could even combine multiple diseased cell models to see how diseases can interfere with each other.”

3D printed chip shows potential to end need for animal testing. The device was developed by scientists from the University of Edinburgh.
Liam Carr and his supervisor Adriana Tavares with the ‘body-on-chip’ device. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian.

Carr’s supervisor, Dr. Adriana Tavares of Edinburgh’s Centre for Cardiovascular Science (CVS), said linking five organs together on one device would help scientists effectively study how a new drug might affect a patient’s whole body.

This is a really important area of medical research, as we continuously learn about how diseases traditionally perceived to be restricted to an organ or system can have diverse effects across other distant organs or different interconnected systems. Devices such as the body-on-chip platform are essential to unravel the mechanisms underlying systemic effects of local diseases as well as investigate off-target effects of drugs, which might be therapeutically useful or detrimental,” said Tavares. “This device shows really strong potential to reduce the large number of animals that are used worldwide for testing drugs and other compounds, particularly in the early stages, where only 2% of compounds progress through the discovery pipeline.”

Tavares said there were other benefits beyond simply eliminating the need for using animals in early drug development. “This non-animal approach could significantly reduce cost of drug discovery, accelerate translation of drugs into the clinic, and improve our understanding of systemic effects of human diseases by using models that are more representative to human biology than animal models.”

The body-on-chip device was developed through a National Centre for Replacement, Refinement, and Reduction of Animals in Research (NC3Rs) and Unilever co-funded PhD studentship award.

“We’re delighted to be supporting Liam and the CVS team in the development of this ‘body-on-chip’, and we look forward to seeing the impact this novel device has on the testing and progression of new compounds and drugs in the future,” said Dr. Susan Bodie of Edinburgh Innovations, the University of Edinburgh’s commercialization unit.

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