Rethinking Healthcare

DARPA, NIH to develop human-body-on-a-chip for drug toxicity tests

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Military and biomedical agencies team up for the first time to create a chip that screens for toxic compounds early on. The tech will bring together 10 different human systems.

The first-ever collaboration of this kind will essentially bring together all sorts of human cells onto a chip and have them talk to each other.

The National Institutes of Health – in partnership with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the Food and Drug Administrationplans to spend up to $140 million over 5 years to develop a chip that will predict drug toxicities and the safety of vaccines.

"Drug toxicity is one of the most common reasons why promising compounds fail," NIH director Francis Collins says in a release. "If things are going to fail, you want them to fail early," he adds.

The chip will be inlaid with human cells representing physiological systems from heart to brain to gut, Nature explains:

A chip that would separate the wheat from the chaff among myriad potential new drugs, dispensing with those toxic to humans before they ever enter a human body. And doing so quickly and cheaply.

The collaboration, according to ScienceInsider, will try to combine human cell types, such as liver and kidney cells, that can represent physiological systems, and then have them 'talk to each other' on a chip.

Specifically, the aim is to get 10 different physiological systems represented in 3D on the chip – allowing scientists to assess the effects of a candidate drug on gene expression, on proteins in the cardiovascular system, the neurological system, and more.

“The idea is you’re looking for signatures that would tell you whether this is a safe compound to try in a human patient,” Collins says. Especially since animal tests can be misleading.

As for the US military… “The Department of Defense needs to rapidly develop and field safe and effective medical countermeasures against biological threats to US warfighters.”

According to the DARPA release, these will be everyone’s roles:

  • NIH’s contribution of $70 million will be administered through the proposed new National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS), which will focus on developing micro-sized systems to mimic human physiology and pathology by taking advantage of recent advances in the field.
  • DARPA’s $70 million will be concentrated on engineering platforms and the biology required for scientific proof-of-concept.
  • The FDA will be advising the agencies on how to meets requirements for safety and effectiveness.

"We know the development pipeline has bottlenecks in it,” Collins says, “and everyone would benefit from fixing them.”

President Obama announced the collaboration this past Friday.

Image by KB35 via Flickr

Janet Fang

Contributing Editor

Janet Fang has written for Nature, Discover and the Point Reyes Light. She is currently a lab technician at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. She holds degrees from the University of California, Berkeley and Columbia University. She is based in New York. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure