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Human Cells + Tech = Accelerated Drug Development and Treatment

By: , Posted on: October 17, 2018

Some scientific advancements can be both awe-inspiring and just a little creepy at the same time. In the world of pharma and medicine, this applies to some newer approaches that are melding living cells with high-tech to do some wonderful things. Two such advances, which made the short list for’s top trends in pharmaceutical research for 2018, are organs-on-chips and bioprinting.

A new way to test drug safety

Organs-on-a-chip is not quite as gruesome as it may sound, but it IS a pretty accurate description—just think of the organs at a cellular level. “Each organ-on-a-chip, roughly the size of a AA battery, is made from a flexible, translucent polymer,” explains Bob Woods of CNBC. “Inside are tiny tubes, each less than a millimeter in diameter, lined with living human cells extracted from a particular organ. When nutrients, air, blood and test compounds, such as experimental drugs or cosmetic ingredients, are pumped through the tubes, the cells replicate some of the key functions of that organ, just as they do in the body.”

This technology can make an enormous impact in drug development, an increasingly costly process that frequently experiences significant delays and difficulties in safety testing. Organs-on-a-chip will help speed the process and, also importantly, lessen the need for animal studies. And which organs are currently getting this unique treatment, you ask? According to an article in The Conversation, “Organs-on-chips in development in labs around the country include kidney, lung, liver, intestine, skin, brain, heart, bone and reproductive systems.”

An alternative to traditional transplants

While organs-on-chips are particularly exciting because of what they can do to accelerate drug development and testing, bioprinting takes us further into what’s possible in the realm of treatment. Imagine bioprinters as similar to 3D printers, except bioprinters use layers of biomaterial, which might include living cells combined with a dissolvable gel that can support the cells. “Cells are taken from the patient and then cultivated until there are enough to create the bio-ink,” writes Piotr Wnuk in PharmaPhorum, explaining that the bioprinters can then be used to build structures like blood vessels or skin tissue.

When you consider the number of people waiting for transplants, many dying every day, the possibilities for this technology are thrilling. In a BBC News article, Padraig Belton reports a story highlighting the work of Dr. Anthony Atala, director of the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine, who has been using pieces of patients’ own organs—a bladder, for example—to grow a new one in the lab.

“Dr. Atala’s work involves bioprinting, using modified 3D inkjet machines to produce biological tissue,” says Belton. Though Dr. Atala points out that you have to know how to make the organs by hand, he sees the bioprinter as a scale-up tool that could allow organs to be made in an “affordable, consistent, and precisely constructed way.” The more complex the organ, the more helpful bioprinting could be in offering a level of precision that “surpasses human hands”.

The future is now

Though these technologies have yet to reach their full potential, they are already much like science fiction come to life. As organs-on-a-chip (sometimes also called “body-on-a-chip” or “tissue chips”) become more sophisticated and accurate as models, they will enable pharmaceutical companies to assess drug candidates with greater efficiency and accuracy—not only offering a financial benefit to pharma firms, but, more critically, demonstrating that the drug is as safe as possible before getting to human trials.

Though it is not yet possible to bioprint complete organs, the technology is developing rapidly. As mentions in its piece, Cellink is already bioprinting some body parts that can be used to test drugs and cosmetics. Along with medtech company CTI Biotech, they are even working on printing replicas of cancer tumors to “help researchers in identifying novel treatments against specific cancer types.”

These amazing technologies may seem a lot like sci-fi, but the future clearly is now and the possibilities for researchers seem endless.


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Pharmaceutical Sciences

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