UC Berkeley researchers create biochip to advance drug development

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Researchers in UC Berkeley’s bioengineering department are developing parts of human organs on devices they call “biochips” in an effort to transform the drug-development industry by allowing for cheaper and more accurate testing.

The project, led by UC Berkeley bioengineering professors Kevin Healy and Luke Lee, is among several others across the United States attempting to recreate human organ tissues on biochips. The campus researchers are the first ones to recreate the structure and function of the human heart and liver, and they are the first to do so using stem cells.

The scientists develop the cells from human stem cells and build tissue on plastic chambers that mimic organs’ dimensions and structure. Healy’s and Lee’s labs will attempt to combine the heart and liver in one chip.

To validate the chips as accurate models, the researchers tested their reactions to drugs with known effects. After successful results, the next step is to test drugs with unknown responses on the tissues.

Peter Loskill, a postdoctoral researcher working under Healy, explained that biochips can be more reliable than animal testing. He said even when drugs tested on animals demonstrate positive results, most fail in human trials because of the physiological differences between lab animals and human subjects.

“Most drugs are meant to treat a disease, but the testing is mostly done on animals that are healthy, because animals cannot have those same human diseases,” he said. “It is impossible (in many cases) to reproduce human diseases in animals.”

While biochips can limit reliance on animal testing, Loskill warned that they should supplement, rather than replace, animal testing, because they can’t replicate all the complex organ interactions in the human body.

Lee recognized that there are skeptics who may be unwilling to steer away from traditional methods of cell growth. But he argued that the chip is more accurate because it serves as a 3-D space for the cells to interact, like real organs.

“People believed that the earth was flat for 100 years,” he said. “People will practice their science with a petri dish for 100 years. They will not change their minds right away, but the truth will reveal.”

Biochip research is receiving $1.2 million in funds from Cures Acceleration Network of the National Institutes of Health. Bernard Munos, a member of the network’s review board, argued that the biochip research is also necessary for national security.

“If tomorrow some bioengineering agent hits the New York City subway, you need a system that has a capability to produce a countermeasure within weeks, not within 10 years,” he said. “The way (the research is) going today, by the time you’re done with the process, it’ll be too late.”

Tahmina Achekzai is the lead research and ideas reporter. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @tahminachekzai.