Wyss Institute Aims to Transform Drug Testing

With the aid of pharmaceutical companies and multiple federal agencies, researchers at the Wyss Institute have undertaken projects that could revolutionize the drug testing process.

For the past half-decade, scientists at the institute have worked to produce a series of chips about the size of a computer memory stick that contain a replication of the mechanical and biochemical behaviors of various human organs, from the gut to the heart.

The Institute, which was created by Harvard to increase collaboration between academic fields and to progress biomedical research, reached a breakthrough two years ago when it created a mock-human lung that made a breathing motion and fought bacteria like the real thing.

Because the devices are minimal and translucent, researchers can study the actions of human organs in real time.

Now, the group is attempting to link up the various replicas to create a more complete model.

“It’s a high risk project,” Wyss Institute Founding Director Don E. Ingber said. “I’m pretty sure we can do two organs at a time. Whether we can do ten remains to be seen, but we’ve been amazed at what we have been able to accomplish in a short time.”

Ingber said that the group hopes to have linked the heart and lung models within the next few months, but that there are several barriers to success, ranging from making sure the blood substitutes match up to developing new microanalytical technology to keep tabs on the model and keep it ‘alive.’

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is aiding researchers in tackling the many challenges ahead by offering up to 37 million dollars for the project.

If Ingber’s project succeeds, the institute will have created an alternative to traditional animal testing for drug companies looking to test their products before attempting human trials.

Ingber said that his method would be cheaper, faster, and more ethically sound than the current option of using rats, monkeys, or other animals.

“The real problem with animal testing, one is ethical, but the other is that more often than not results in animals don’t predict results in humans,” Ingber said. “We don’t have any other option now and it does work sometimes, but the goal would be bit by bit to replace one animal at a time. We are in discussion with the FDA about what we need to do to begin to do that.”

Similar research on synthetic human models is being done all over the country but Ingber said Harvard still has a “significant lead” thanks to an illustrious history in the field and a wealth of resources in a number of relevant fields at Harvard.

“Harvard is in a good position to compete and dominate in this field,” said Kevin K. Parker, who researches cardiac cell biology and tissue engineering at the Wyss Institute. “A lot of [other researchers] are using similar techniques to ours, which indicates Harvard is kind of the path-setter in this area.”

Staff writer Jacob D. H. Feldman can be reached at jacobfeldman@college.harvard.edu.

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