A plastic chip about the size of a thumb drive could be the end of animal testing.
The technology, which was recently named “Design of the Year" by London’s Design Museum, is called organs-on-chips and was developed by researchers at Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering.
Each chip is embedded with microfluidic tubes lined with human cells, through which air, blood and bacteria can be pumped, mimicking a human organ, and the chips’ clear polymer allows scientists to watch the small-scale biological processes in real time.
“The organs-on-chips allow us to see biological mechanisms and behaviors that no one knew existed before,” Don Ingber, founding director of the Wyss Institute, told The Guardian. “We now have a window on the molecular-scale activities going on in human organs, including things that happen in human cells that don’t occur in animals,” Ingber said.
Lung-on-a-chip is the first “organ” to be developed, but eventually chips that emulate hearts, intestines, kidneys and other organs could all be linked together to form full-body networks, enabling researchers to test drugs and cosmetics without using animals.
The organs-on-chips “stand to significantly reduce the need for animal testing by providing a faster, less expensive, less controversial and accurate means to predict whether new drug compounds will be successful in human clinical trials,” the university said in a news release.
More than 115 million animals worldwide are used in lab experiments annually, according to the Humane Society International, and animal-welfare advocates have long maintained that such testing is not only cruel but also unreliable as humans aren’t biologically the same as other animals.
“One of the things that the pharmaceutical industry is finding is that they're having very high failure rates, and often it’s because the animal models being used to develop these drugs are not predictive of the human situation,” Geraldine Hamilton, a senior staff scientist at the Wyss Institute said.
Although organs-on-chips are still years away from replacing animal trials on a large scale, the technology is already in line with public opinion.
A 2014 Gallup poll found that 41 percent of Americans find medical testing on animals to be morally wrong, while a Humane Society poll revealed that 67 percent of Americans are opposed to cosmetic testing on animals.
Learn more about organs-on-chips in the video below.
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