Since food tasters have fallen out of fashion, scientists have had to devise new ways to check the safety of food and drugs that humans put in their mouths. In the pharmaceutical industry for example, animals like mice and dogs are often used to predict if a drug candidate will be harmful to people. If this seems strange to you, an unassuming Hershey bar should confirm your suspicions; chocolate is toxic to dogs but (thankfully) not to humans. Mice and dogs obviously aren’t people, so discrepancies are common.
In response, the FDA has started to study if a miniaturized model of the human liver can better predict health outcomes. Developed by a biotechnology company called Emulate, “livers-on-a-chip” comprise several types of liver cells that are arranged on a three-dimensional framework and fed nutrients via a blood-like liquid. The FDA plans to focus on areas like dietary supplements and food-borne pathogens for now, but extending this technology to pharmaceuticals could reveal doomed-to-fail drug candidates before they ever see the clinic.
Because people also have brains, hearts, and other organs, any one model used in isolation will be of limited value. Emulate has already developed models of the brain, lungs, and intestines, and researchers are currently developing methods to connect them to build a more accurate simulation of a person’s inner workings. It remains unclear if a handful of tiny rectangles with some stuff growing on them will actually be a better model of the human body than a living, breathing mammal is, but the potential benefits are too exciting to ignore.
Acknowledgments: Many thanks to Dr. Mara Inniss, a post-doctoral fellow in cell line development at Pfizer, for providing her expertise and commentary on the topic.
Managing Correspondent: Christopher Gerry
Media Coverage: ‘Organs-on-Chips’ Technology: FDA Testing Groundbreaking Science – FDA Voice; Miniature liver on a chip could boost US food safety – Nature News