November 4, 2013
In labs around the U.S., researchers are creating human tissue from stem cells and replicating the functions of human organs.
“All of these things, a lot of these advances we used to read about in comic books but this we never read about. When I went to school I was taught that nerve cells don’t regenerate, now we’re doing that up in our own labs here. And they’re making organs out of stem cells, it’s fantastic.”
Dr. Harry Salem’s been involved in his fair share of exciting scientific breakthroughs, including the creation of the breathalyzer, the infant incubator, and Nyquil.
Now, as the chief scientist for life sciences at the Edgewood Chemical Biological Center, he’s testing the impact of chemical weapons on humans using organs mounted on microchips.
Of course, the chips don’t literally contain miniaturized human organs. They simply hold tissue swatches that mimic a fully functioning human heart, or liver, or lung.
While Salem’s work has immediate defense and civilian applications, the so-called human-on-a chip has implications for the broader community, he says.
There’s a lot of work that will be going on in this area not only to protect the soldier but to protect civilians, and not only from chemical warfare agents, but from pollutants and diseases.”
The technology’s also faster, more accurate and more cost effective than animal testing.
“I’ve often used the expression that humans are not 70 kilo rats. When we do the animal studies we have to extrapolate the effects on humans.”
But nothing, Salem says, demonstrates the way that human tissue reacts to drugs and chemicals, like human tissue.
Kristen Fabre manager of the Center for Advancing Translational Sciences at the NIH says microchip organs will help develop safer drugs with fewer side effects.
“You could essentially have a mini-personalized human-on-a-chip so that you can really get an idea of what a response would be for an individual with a toxin or a drug, or whatever you’d like to test.”
Fabre says it may also be possible to create organs that express gene mutations linked to certain diseases, like cystic fibrosis, and help find a cure or effective drug therapy.
This technology is still in its early stages, with a handful of labs around the country working to perfect it for wider use.