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‘Lung-on-a-chip’ awarded prize for its animal replacement potential

27 February 2013

Research describing a ‘lung-on-a-chip’ microdevice that can accurately replicate conditions in a diseased human lung has won a prize for its potential to offer a viable alternative to animal experimentation.

Announced on Tuesday (February 26 2013) by the UK’s National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research (NC3Rs), the NC3Rs annual 3Rs Prize recognises the most promising scientific advances and technological developments to replace, reduce or refine the use of animals in research and testing.

Developed by Professor Donald Ingber of the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, at Harvard University, and published in Science Translational Medicine, the microdevice contains hollow channels lined with living human cells, mimicking both the interface between tissues and the unique physical environment seen in whole living organs. Crystal clear and flexible, it is approximately the size of a USB memory stick.

Applying a vacuum to part of the microdevice allows it to ‘breathe’, recreating the way in which our tissues physically expand and contract during respiration. In testing it was able to successfully replicate the conditions seen in pulmonary oedema (fluid accumulation in the lungs), and predict results of a new drug for this life-threatening condition, which showed benefit in animal studies.

In addition, the microdevice has allowed the researchers to carry out real-time high resolution imaging on the cells and make accurate measurements of fluid flow and blood clot formation, which are not easily available in an animal model.

Professor Ingber said: “This is precisely the kind of progress that regulatory government agencies, such as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the US, and pharmaceutical companies need to see in order to seriously consider an alternative approach to animal models.”

In their paper the researchers describe how the next step is to apply the technology to other human organs with the goal of one day being able to use it as part of an automated system to test many drugs. While it is not expected to offer an immediate replacement for animal studies, further development and applications of the technology could allow for a more gradual replacement of animal models of human disease.

Dr Vicky Robinson, Chief Executive, NC3Rs, said: “The NC3Rs annual 3Rs Prize champions the 3Rs globally, rewarding real scientific and technological advances. This technology may be the beginning of a revolution of the systems used to model human disease and test drugs, with great potential to reduce the need for animals. By recognising it with our 3Rs Prize, we hope to expose it to the UK’s scientific community and encourage further research in this area.”

Due to the number of high-quality entries, three other papers have been awarded highly-commended prizes. Scottish-based researcher Professor Susan Barnett, University of Glasgow, was commended for research developing an in vitro model of spinal cord injury using rat embryonic spinal cord cells. This has enabled the laboratory to test the combination of drugs being studied using cells from one animal only, representing a 97% reduction had an established methodology been used. This method is being further developed for testing therapeutics more widely.

London-based Professor Gareth Sanger, Queen Mary, University of London, was commended for research demonstrating the benefit of using human - rather than animal - gastrointestinal tissues for drug testing, which are obtained as part of normal surgical procedures.

US researcher Professor Shuichi Takayama, University of Michigan (USA), was commended for developing a 3D cell culture to test anti-cancer drugs, which proved to be more representative of clinical responses than standard 2D ‘flat’ cell cultures, demonstrating the potential for this method to replace and reduce the use of animals in pharmaceutical testing.

The GlaxoSmithKline-sponsored prize was presented by Professor Paul Matthews, Vice President, Integrative Medicines Development, GlaxoSmithKline, who said: “GlaxoSmithKline is delighted to continue to sponsor this important award. The quality of the submissions this year highlights success in embedding the 3Rs principles in research across the globe. This competition illustrates well how innovative science is being translated rapidly into approaches that can both advance the 3Rs agenda and further develop biomedical science for improved human health.”

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