Testing pharmaceuticals on animals has become an increasingly controversial topic.

On the one hand, animal testing is a valued stage in the drug development process and has contributed to almost every medical breakthrough in the past 100 years.

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On the other, animal testing is seen by many as a cruel, inhumane act and a violation of animal rights.

Until we have found a replacement for a living organism that shares 98% of its DNA with humans, has a whole organ system with pulmonary and circulatory structures and can develop diseases equivalent to human diseases, there is no choice but to continue using animals, if we want to keep developing innovative medicines.

Organs-on-a-chip for animal testing

Researchers at the Wyss institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering may have found the answer.

They have used computer microchip manufacturing methods to engineer microfluidic culture devices that imitate the microarchitecture and functions of living human organs.

The chips consist of a transparent, flexible polymer with hollow microfluidic channels that are lined with human cells and tissues specific to the organ of interest.

Essentially they present a living 3D cross section of a human organ.

These microchip organs could replace animal studies by potentially offering a more ethical disease model which can provide a greater level of insight into the efficacy and toxicology of a drug candidate.

So far chips replicating the lung, heart, intestine, kidney, skin, bone marrow and blood–brain barrier have been developed and can even be combined to mimic the entire human body.

The next step for researchers is the implementation of specific disease models into the OOC and the development of a novel computational platform, able to discover new therapeutics, clinical biomarkers, vaccines, and delivery systems.

Once this has been done, candidate drugs can be administrated to the OOC and an assessment of the interaction between the therapy and disease model can be carried out.

Potential barriers

No matter how exciting and game changing OOC technology could be for the healthcare industry, it still needs to achieve certain regulatory milestones before it replaces animal studies.  

OOC will have to provide drug efficacy and safety evidence significant enough for a preclinical therapy to advance to Phase I human clinical trials by providing comparable scores to previous animal studies.  

Current laws that state animal studies are required before human trials can be started must also be changed.

IF OOC technology can overcome the obstacles it faces it will transform the healthcare industry and drug discovery process.

It will offer a more ethically acceptable alternative to animal studies, more accurate toxicology, and efficacy that is more comparable to humans then the effects of therapies on animal disease models.

It will reduce the cost of drug development, which could decrease the cost of new therapies, and it could speed up the drug development process and be used with specific patient stem cells to make further advancements in personalised medicine.