We could finally be entering an age where medical and research testing on laboratory animals for human safety is no longer necessary.
A team of scientists and engineers at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory is developing an alternative called the Isolation Chip (iCHIP). Formally known as the in-vitro Chip-based Human Investigational Platform (still iCHIP), it can replicate the central nervous system (brain), peripheral nervous system, the blood-brain barrier and the heart – the basic four biological systems required for life.
As LLNL engineer Dave Soscia, co-lead on the project, which they call "human-on-a-chip," explains: "It's a testing platform for exposure to agents whose effects are unknown to humans. If you have a system that is engineered to more closely replicate the human environment, you can skip over the really lengthy process of animal testing, which doesn't necessarily give us information relevant to humans."
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration reports that nine out of 10 drugs that pass animal tests fail in humans or are dangerous. In June, President Obama signed a reform of the Toxic Substances Control Act to reduce animal testing, the first update to the bill in 20 years. It specifically discourages use of chemical testing on vertebrate animals and requires the Environmental Protection Agency to create a database of alternative testing methods.
The iCHIP project aims to eventuate human cells or tissues on microchips to be tested with specific drugs and toxins, predict the reaction on a human body, and speed the development of medical antidotes.
As Elizabeth Wheeler, principal investigator of the project, recently told The Mercury News: “We hope to integrate them all together and re-create the human body and the reactions it has to link multiple chips to capture interactions between different organs.”
A recent piece in Factor-Tech puts it in context: “Once developed and integrated on the chip, these systems can be used in place of animal and human test subjects: a speedier, ethically sound and infinitely more accurate way to predict the impact of chemicals, viruses, medicine and drugs on the human body.”
A representative from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) told The Mercury News this innovation could reduce the killing of over 100 million animals in laboratories each year.
“We are familiar with this new direction that science is taking and we’re very excited about the possibility that it can replace animals in chemical testing and drug development,” said Kathy Guillermo, VP of laboratory investigation at PETA.
The iCHIP is an evolution of technology and thought, an iterative innovation that impacts an entire ecosystem and offers physical, moral and economic benefits in a more humane model.
LLNL’s Jeremy Thomas told Factor-Tech that this is the first project to demonstrate that “long-term culture and chemical interrogation of primary human DRG neurons on microelectrode arrays is possible”– a boundary-breaking boon for researchers.
Dr Brett Cochrane, science director at the Dr Hadwen Trust (DHT) - the UK’s leading non-animal medical research charity - applauds and supports the iCHIP project, “not only (as a means to) reduce/replace research animals, but also to address the continued issues surrounding the potential lack of human-relevancy when animal models are solely relied on.”
Cochrane explains that factors that continue to feed a laboratory-animal ecosystem for testing are multifold, including a lack of funding streams; a lack of cohesion between scientists and funding bodies; differing legal, regulatory and cultural restrictions worldwide; and a reticence to explore alternatives and retrain staff.
But perhaps above all, the strongest influence is “lobbying pressure from an entire industry dedicated to the supply of laboratory animals,” who are, as Cochrane points out, “sadly, still considered a dispensible laboratory consumable. ... While technology is of immense importance, development needs to be matched with the willingness to change and move forward. This is to the benefit of both humans and animals.”
Beyond revolutionizing an unethical and cruel ecosystem, the iCHIP has potential for strides in personalized medicine, an emergent field dedicated to making the treatment as individualized as the disease. It involves identifying genetic, genomic, and clinical information that allows accurate predictions to be made about a person's susceptibility of developing disease, the course of disease, and its response to treatment.
The iCHIP project also has implications for inventing new drugs, vaccines and even for exploring countermeasures to biowarfare agents.