News Feature | April 22, 2014

Researchers To Test Drugs On Micro-Organs Instead Of Mice

By Estel Grace Masangkay


Researchers from the Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee, are developing miniaturized living copies of human organs to advance research in drug testing.

Testing new drugs on lab animals, in particular mice, originated with famous cancer pathologist Leo Loeb’s assertions that mice could serve as models for human disease. Loeb discovered symptomatic parallels between his own patients and mice when samples of rodent skin lesions were sent to him for examination.

However, approximation between human and mice physiology is rough. Recent studies showed that pharmaceutical testing in rodents accurately predicts human toxicity less than half the time. Predicting human outcomes based on mice models with inflammatory diseases were close to random. In addition, drugs that seem promising in mice models often fail in humans due to adverse effects on other organs.

John Wikswo, professor of Biomedical Science and Physics at Vanderbilt, is developing micro-organs to advance research in drug testing. The micro-organs are built using a small bioreactor, where a handful of cells taken from a human organ such as the liver are connected to sensors to monitor the micro-organ’s health. “The trick is to make it not too simple but simple enough and then ask it the questions that are most important…You got to keep the cost low, so someone can have hundreds or thousands of these running in their lab.” Professor Wikswo says the ultimate goal is to connect several micro-organs such as liver, heart, and lungs, to test the effects of a drug which targets just a single organ, simulating what happens in the body.

Scientists previously developed organs on microchips, which are less than human in appearance, but are quite human in function. Donald Ingber, professor of Bioengineering at Harvard University, made headlines in 2012 for his team’s manufacturing of a lung-on-a-chip that could be used to study effects of pharmaceutical compounds.

Researcher John McLean says building of micro-organs could be used to design personalized drugs based on different factors such as the specific chemical make-up of a tumor. “So what you would do is look at how those particular cells in that tumor respond to different parts of chemotherapy, such that what you could do is call the physician the next day and say use drug number seven,” he said.

Scientists such as Professor Ingber and Professor Wikswo are developing micro-organs which could be interconnected for testing new drugs.