Using A Surrogate To Test Drugs' Effects On The Human Body
March 26, 2014

Beyond The Petri Dish And Lab Rat: Using A Surrogate To Test Drugs’ Effects On The Human Body

Lee Rannals for - Your Universe Online

A new project could help revolutionize the way doctors screen new drugs through a surrogate body system.

Scientists are developing a project called Advanced Tissue-engineered Human Ectypal Network Analyzer (ATHENA), which aims to essentially be a testing station for new drugs on the human body. ATHENA will be a $19 million project that includes a liver, heart, lung and kidney all connected together and able to fit neatly on a desk.

"By developing this 'homo minutus,' we are stepping beyond the need for animal or Petri dish testing: There are huge benefits in developing drug and toxicity analysis systems that can mimic the response of actual human organs," Rashi Iyer, a senior scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory, said in a statement.

The ATHENA system could help scientists better understand chemical effects on human organs like never before, she said.

"The ultimate goal is to build a lung that breathes, a heart that pumps, a liver that metabolizes and a kidney that excretes -– all connected by a tubing infrastructure much akin to the way blood vessels connect our organs. While some skeptics might believe that this is a utopian dream," she said, "the team is confident that this is indeed achievable.”

John Wikswo, co-principal investor on the project, said that the team has spent a lot of time analyzing the challenges in building miniature human organ constructs. They believe that they have figured out a way for ATHENA to work in an effective way.

"There are a lot of trade-offs, and we're not trying to build an exact replica of a human liver, but an in vitro model that allows us to measure human liver responses to drugs and toxins that cannot be replicated by a layer of cells growing on plastic,” Wikswo said in a statement.

The system will be utilizing an ion mobility mass spectrometry device to help ensure it is able to interrogate ATHENA and obtain valuable data about what is happening to the organs. The researchers have already successfully connected a liver organ contract into the hardware platform that runs and monitors the health of the entire system. They expect to be connecting the liver and heart constructs this winter, followed by the lung and the kidney.