Revolutionizing Drug Testing: The 3D Printed ‘Body-on-Chip’ – A Potential End to Animal Testing

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Due to advancements in additive manufacturing, there might be a more ethical alternative to live animal experiments for drug testing. A groundbreaking development by researchers at the University of Edinburgh involves a 3D-printed model, termed as “body-on-chip”, which simulates the journey of a drug through the human body, thus assessing its impacts and tolerability. This innovative plastic chip enables testing of various drug types.

This new breakthrough eliminates the necessity of using animals for such testing, bringing a more humane approach to scientific progress. Thanks to this technology, researchers can now analyze the behavior of organs in a safer and potentially more accurate manner. This “Body-On-Chip” device was a result of a doctoral scholarship, under the joint efforts of the National Centre for Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research (NC3Rs) and with financial backing from Unilever.

This feat in both the healthcare and medical research sectors is an unprecedented innovation hailing from the Scottish capital. The newly devised chip houses five compartments, each crafted with the help of a 3D printer. Each compartment is customized to emulate the human heart, brain, kidneys, lungs, and liver. The channels connecting the various compartments function as routes for spreading the medication.

In a contained environment, this capillary system illustrates to researchers how new medical substrates are distributed across the human circulatory system, the organs’ reactions to the substance, and the duration of the drug’s presence in each organ. The “body-on-chip” devices used must have a consistent flow rate across different specimens to infer conclusions for the drug dispersion in the human body.

The five chambers of the body-on-chip (photo credits: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian)

To this end, University of Edinburgh scientists Liam Carr, the inventor of the chip, and Dr. Adriana Tavares from the Edinburgh Centre for Cardiovascular Science (CVS), Carr’s PhD supervisor, worked with Edinburgh College of Art to test different versions of the chip innovation. Positron emission tomography (PET) is used to check the even distribution of the drug within the object. This is used to develop images in 3D format that show the processes inside the respective organs, says Liam Carr. PET is a diagnostic imaging method in medicine that uses a safe radioactive tracer.

The Importance of the Body-On-Chip for Research

Ultimately, the advantage of PET is the early detection of signs of heart disease, cancer, neurological disorders and other diseases, according to Carr. The inventor notes that, for example, a model of fatty liver disease could also be implemented in the device in order to draw conclusions about the influence of a diseased liver on other organs. In addition, according to Carr, several models could be linked in order to investigate the influence that different diseases have on each other.

The method ultimately helps researchers to assess the effect of new drugs on a patient’s entire body and thus represents a substantial advance in drug testing, according to the two researchers. Tavares, further emphasized the importance of the “body-on-chip” for animals: “This device shows really strong potential to reduce the large number of animals that are used worldwide for testing drugs and other compounds, particularly in the early stages, where only 2% of compounds progress through the discovery pipeline.”

According to Tavares, there are also other advantages, such as reducing costs by dispensing with animal testing and speeding up the introduction of medicines. In addition, the use of human-like models instead of the previous live animal models in drug development is advantageous in terms of improving information on the effects of diseases. The new method therefore represents both a more ethical and more efficient alternative to traditional animal testing methods in pharmaceutical development and could contribute to an improvement in healthcare in the future.

What do you think of the 3D printed body-on-chip? Do you think it will reduce animal testing? Let us know in a comment below or on our LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter pages! Don’t forget to sign up for our free weekly Newsletter here, the latest 3D printing news straight to your inbox! You can also find all our videos on our YouTube channel.

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