Chief Science Correspondent
A German biotechnology company is developing a new device that its founder claims will completely eliminate the need for animal testing and human trials in drug development.
In a statement published by the Sunday Times on Saturday TissUse founder Uwe Marx said the company's new technology, set to be released within three years, would "close down most of the animal-testing laboratories worldwide."
Reporters say the product would be a tiny "machine," about the size of a cell phone microhip, that would encompass synthetic human organs to mimic the response of actual human subjects. An early version of the chip (comprised of an artificial lung, liver, kidney, heart and gut) is being used in trials to test cosmetics and other chemicals, according to The Times of India.
The chip appears to be constructed as a tiny pump and circuitry system, where cell cultures are inserted into chambers to mimic human organs. In a recent publication, a group of TissUse-associated researchers claim that these cells rely on "evolutionarily optimised specialization" to interact and perform their biological functions.
The team also states that the chip will "aim to combine several organ equivalents within a human-like metabolizing environment or aim at in vivo-like pharmacokinetics and phamacodynamics."
Human-like. Organ equivalents. In vivo-like. When the complexity of the human body is shrunk down to such as small scale, there is reason to be skeptical.
Despite what TissUse seems to be claiming, this technology is not a replacement for actual biological systems. It's a mimicry of real life. And while that idea holds merit on its own, proposing the chips as a total replacement for animal testing (and even real human trials) is impractical.
Marx is correct in stating that animal systems do not always provide sufficient comparisons to human models. However, Marx's leap that this technology entirely eradicates the need for a whole-animal model may be a bit premature.
Animal models offer something that a micro-chip would not: A combination of physiological, behavioral and physical responses. A famous landmark study from 1998 used an observed "obesity" phenotype in yellow-furred mice in an early example of epigenetics. Development of this technology has been critical for finding new ways to improve and better understand human health. However, in the chip model, this experiment would have been entirely theoretical. These researchers were able to use a gradient of phenotypes to determine differences in gene expression. These results would have been much more difficult to track in a model that only mimicked organ responses.
Also, animals often possess unique, extreme qualities that are have implications for human disorders. For instance, blind mole rats are "immune" to the development of cancer. Researchers believe these creatures have evolved unique cellular properties involving differences cell growth and apoptosis that contribute to this trait. Blind mole rat studies have been relevant to human health research because they were based on an observed phenomenon in nature. That's not something you'll find quite so easily in an artificial model.
TissUse's technology holds the potential to offer a completely different approach to biomedical research and their products, if released in the next three years, are certainly valuable. However, like many things in science, TissUse is not the only answer to designing better drugs and treatments. Animal testing is still valuable. Human trials are still critical. Even as modern biotechnology offers new and exciting advances in research, there is still great value in classic, practical techniques.