Organs on a chip: How 3D models of living tissue are changing biomedical research

Our understanding of biological systems — including our own body — is largely based on laboratory studies. By looking at cells grown in petri dishes, or conducting experiments on animals, we can pick apart how biology works.

But how well do our lab techniques actually represent real life? In many cases, when candidate drugs make it to clinical trials we discover that promising outcomes in animals don’t always translate into the same in humans. Is there a better way — a more accurate way — of investigating human physiology in the lab that might also reduce our need for animal experimentation? This is the exciting promise of organs-on-a-chip.

To learn more about the exciting field of organ-on-chip technologies, I was joined on Up Close by Prof Donald Ingber, Founding Director of the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University. Don is also the Judah Folkman Professor of Vascular Biology at Harvard Medical School & Boston Children’s Hospital and Professor of Bioengineering at the Harvard School of Engineering & Applied Sciences.

Check out the interview as a podcast or transcript here.



Fur and against: Strutinizing the efficacy of animal testing and its alternatives

When we take a pill, put on makeup, or purchase a new sofa, we usually take it for granted that these products are safe for us. The confronting reality is that for decades, our safety has largely relied on drugs and cosmetics and household chemicals being tested on animals.

But do we need to test on animals as much as we still do? Few of us would now argue that our vanity should be at the expense of animals, but what about testing for drug safety? Are there viable alternatives to animal testing? And how should product researchers and government regulators change their processes if the alternatives to animal testing are as good as, or perhaps even better than, the tests we conduct on animals?

I was recently joined on Up Close by Professor Thomas Hartung. Professor Hartung is a pharmacologist, a toxicologist and a world leader in the development of alternatives to animal testing. He is Director of the Center for Alternatives to Animal Testing at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Maryland. Listen to the podcast, or read the transcript here.

Animal research – are the results too good to be true?

Analysis of neurological studies on animals reveals widespread bias.

The road to market for a promising new therapy can be notoriously long and treacherous. Before the first small-scale clinical trials in humans can even be contemplated, a new therapy (such as a drug or surgical procedure) must first pass muster in preclinical animal studies.

A study published in PLoS Biology has uncovered considerable bias in the reporting of results from animal studies into neurological diseases. The result is that some treatments could be progressing to human clinical trials on the back of flimsy preclinical evidence. The discovery could also help to explain why promising results in animals often fail to translate into promising results in humans.

Although logistically simpler than human clinical trials, animal studies are not without their limitations. For ethical and financial reasons, studies aim to keep animal numbers to a minimum. The problem with limiting animal numbers is that studies can end up with ambiguous results. A new drug might have improved outcomes for some of the animals, but the difference between the animals taking the drug and those taking the placebo could be too close to make a confident call.

Continue reading “Animal research – are the results too good to be true?”