October 8th, 2013 by Barbara Stagno
The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) awarded $24 million in September for the development of simulated miniature human organs that would be used to develop countermeasure against bio-threats, such as chemical weapons or infectious disease outbreaks.
The funding, awarded to five U.S. institutions, on behalf of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency is part of an effort to develop non-animal methods, including vaccines, drugs and other therapeutics that would counter bioterrorism.
In December 2011, the DOD sponsored the report Animal Models for Assessing Countermeasures to Bioterrorism Agents, which acknowledged that no animal models were currently available for this purpose. But the report did not call for the development of more animal models, but rather recommended that “Changing the standard practice of animal experimentation where feasible to approximate the clinical course of treatment for humans could provide a more reasonable prediction of the usefulness of countermeasures during the development process.”
In a feat of modern bio-engineering, a 3D printer uses “ink” comprised of living human cells multi-layered on a gel surface to print out miniature organs. These “organs,” are connected by a blood simulating fluid, enabling transport between the cells and organs, mimicking the functions of the heart, liver, lung and blood vessels. The resulting “body-on-a-chip” will act as a testing platform for evaluating how the human body might respond to chemical agents, like ricin and sarin, or diseases like Ebola virus, and also develop vaccines and therapeutics to counteract them.
The Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine, which is leading the effort in combination with four other institutions, believes this novel approach could reduce animal tests which are inefficient, expensive, and most important, not always applicable to humans. Dr. Anthony Atala, Director of the Institute explained how it’s better than testing on animals because scientists are actually testing human tissue.
While bioprinting technology and the “organ-on-a-chip” are not new, the pulling together of these technologies specifically to develop a testing ground for bio-threats is innovative.
This latest push by the DOD to reduce animal testing is an expansion of the 2007 landmark report issued by the National Research Council, Toxicity Testing for the 21st Century: A Vision and a Strategy. The report called for the development of modern methods to evaluate chemical toxicity that “dramatically reduce the need for animal testing because the new tests would be based on human cells and cell components.”
These innovations demonstrate how the decades-long failure of animal testing to yield applicable results for humans is increasingly being acknowledged by government, industry and scientists.