Lung-on-a-chip device could reduce animal drug testing

US scientists have created a tiny device that simulates a working human lung and could reduce the need for animal drug testing.

The “lung-on-a-chip” contains hollow channels lined with living human cells that mimic the interface between the air sacks in the lung and the blood vessels beneath, allowing scientists to study the body’s response to lung infections and diseases.

The chip’s inventors at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University have received an annual international prize for the device’s potential to gradually reduce the use of animals in drug testing.

‘We believe that our human breathing Lung-on-a-Chip, and other organ chips we have in development, represent a first wave of exciting new alternative approaches to animal testing that hopefully will change how drug development is carried out in the future,’ said Wyss director Dr Don Ingber.

‘This award helps to validate this radical new approach on the global stage, and to strengthen our resolve to work with government agencies and pharmaceutical companies that have been supporting our work to pursue this alternative approach to animal testing.’

The chip is about the size of a USB memory stick and is made from a clear, flexible polymer, with channels inside created using microchip fabrication techniques.

Two of the channels are separated into two halves by a porous membrane with human lung cells on one side and blood vessel cells on the other.

A vacuum is then applied to smaller channels either side of the main conduits, causing the tissue interface to deform and drawing air across the simulated lung surface. A blood sample is also passed through the artificial capillary below the membrane.

This has enabled the scientists to study how white blood cells migrate through the lung interface and attack bacteria when an infection is introduced.

Because the device simulates very closely the environment of a real lung, it could allow researchers to test new drugs with much more accuracy than is currently available with lab technology and without the use of animal testing.

The prize was awarded by UK’s National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research (NC3Rs)

‘This technology may be the beginning of a revolution of the systems used to model human disease and test drugs, with great potential to reduce the need for animals,’ said NC3Rs chief executive Dr Vicky Robinson.

‘By recognising it with our 3Rs Prize, we hope to expose it to the UK’s scientific community and encourage further research in this area.’

The researchers are also working on nine other organs-on-chips with the aim of creating a human body-on-a-chip.