American researchers are developing an artificial human organ system for drug screening that could replace testing on animals.
The Advanced Tissue-engineering Human Ectypal Network Analyser, or simply ATHENA, project uses a combination of human organ constructs and advanced technologies such as mass spectrometry.
Currently, the researchers are developing surrogates of four human organs – liver, heart, lungs and kidneys. With each of those organs about the size of a smartphone screen, the whole ATHENA body of interconnected organs could comfortably fit 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,” said Rashi Iyer, a senior scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory, the lead laboratory on the five-year, $19m (£11.5m) multi-institutional effort.
“By creating a holistic dynamic system that more realistically mimics the human physiological environment than static human cells in a dish, we can understand chemical effects on human organs as never before,” Iyer said. “The ultimate goal is to build a lung that breathes, a heart that pumps, a liver that metabolises and a kidney that excretes - all connected by a tubing infrastructure much akin to the way blood vessels connect our organs.”
Some 40 per cent of pharmaceuticals fail their clinical trials, Iyer noted, and there are thousands of chemicals whose effects on humans are simply unknown. Providing a realistic, cost-effective and rapid screening system such as ATHENA with high-throughput capabilities could provide major benefits to the medical field, screening more accurately and offering a greater chance of clinical trial success.
“We spent a bit of time analysing the challenges in building miniature human organ constructs, and we believe we’ve figured out how to capture the key features we need,” said co-principal investigator John Wikswo. “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.”