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Exciting new technology that will revolutionise drug testing has now secured the financial backing it needs. Emulate, the company commercialising the ‘Organs-on-Chips’ biotechnology, has been launched, after receiving $12 million in financing. Its answer to the pitfalls of drugs testing is an industry first: replica organs, the size of memory sticks, that mimic the functionality of human organs in the body so precisely as to make all other methods of testing obsolete.

In an illuminating talk on June 13th, Dr Geraldine Hamilton, of The Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard, who formed the company Emulate, stressed the need for a new, more efficient approach to drugs testing. R&D productivity in the industry has declined rapidly in recent years, she said. Increasingly vast sums of money are being sunk into the development of drugs that are simply not working. Only about 10% of the drugs that make it to Phase 1 trials will reach the market.

The main problem is that the current ways of testing the drugs are not effective in predicting what response a human will have. Before now there were only two main methods of testing: using cells cultivated in petri dishes, and on animals.

While the cells in plastic dishes are human cells, they are not in their natural environment – the human body. Removed from these conditions, they behave differently and the results are not a good indication of how the cells inside a person will react. Aside from the heavy moral implications, and negative public opinion, animal testing falls foul of a simple and obvious issue: what will work on animals, will not necessarily work on humans. As reported in The Pharmaceutical Journal, Lans Taylor, Director of the Drugs Discovery Unit, Pittsburgh, said: "We know how to cure cancer in a mouse, it’s humans that are the problem. . ."

Animal testing is always a hot topic and there are sizeable incentives in place to encourage any SME’s working on alternative solutions to animal testing. And if this isn’t encouragement enough, projects of this nature could also for qualify tax relief.

The solution created by The Wyss Institute is known as the 'Organ-on-a -Chip'. Essentially each Chip is a micro-environment that mimics the conditions that cells face within a particular organ. The human organs are dynamic, three dimensional environments. To recreate them, every possible variable is taken into account, from temperature, to the pressures acting upon the cell, along with the flow of fluids and chemical compounds that the cells encounter.

The result is a far better model of a human being than has ever been created before. Researchers can be confident that the data they are collecting on the test cells’ responses to new drugs and toxins is relevant, and ineffective drugs can be recognised and discarded sooner – and therefore at a lower cost.

The ultimate goal is to be able to create a human-on-a-chip, not a replica human as such, but instead a system of 'Organs-on-Chips' linked together in the way they would be in the human body. Researchers could then test how a drug makes its way through the human system, organ by organ, producing holistic results. This is still a fair way off, as is a future free from animal testing. However, to fully appreciate what has been achieved here we have to consider this in comparison to how slowly progress is usually made in Research & Development in the industry, not forgetting the mix of disciplines and backgrounds of those involved in this biotechnological advance.

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