Military Seeks Human Biochips to Speed Drug Testing
New drugs or vaccines must pass animal trials to prove safe enough for human clinical testing, but mice and rats still represent imperfect test subjects for substances aimed at helping humans. That's why the U.S. military's science agency wants to replace rodents with miniaturized biochip versions of human body parts and organs.
The specially engineered human tissue could do much more than act as a guinea pig without feelings; it would likely produce much more accurate results related to the effects of drugs or vaccines. The Pentagon's DARPA even envisions biochips helping to speed up drug and vaccine production to ward off contagious threats, such as a possible pandemic or a bioterrorism attack.
"This cheaper, faster and more predictive approach to drug screening could speed the development and improve the evaluation of innovative medicines, bringing needed products to patients safer and faster," said Margaret Hamburg, commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
DARPA and the National Institutes of Health each plan to spend up to $70 million on the new Microphysiological Systems program over five years, with guidance from the FDA about safety and effectiveness standards. The project launched its request for proposals on Sept. 16.
Successful biochips must replicate the functions of human organs and physiological systems, so that drug and vaccine tests can effectively simulate what would really happen in the human body. Such systems cover the whole range: circulatory, endocrine, gastrointestinal, immune, integumentary, musculoskeletal, nervous, reproductive, respiratory and urinary.
Until now, drug and vaccine testing has only tried using isolated human cells in the lab. But researchers have shown that they can create elaborate constructs of human cell types a possible starting point for making the desired biochips.
If successful, the U.S. military can revolutionize development of countermeasures against bioterrorism threats. The pharmaceutical industry could expect cheaper, faster drug and vaccine development for its business. Patients might receive a new generation of safer, more effective drugs. And anyone who feels guilty about animal testing may have their conscience eased just a little bit more.
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