Drug discovery has long relied on controversial animal testing, but minute artificial organs, born of recent advances in tissue culture and bioengineering, are poised to revolutionise the field. One promising system (pictured) captures the key features of the human lung: blood vessel and lung cells mediate gas exchange between flows of blood and air, while contractions simulate breathing. Dubbed the ‘lung on a chip’, it has been used to study pulmonary oedema, an accumulation of fluid in the lungs. ‘Symptoms’ such as fluid leakage worsened when the device was infused with a cancer drug, reproducing side effects seen in human patients. Conversely, they improved when exposed to a drug independently found to be effective in sick mice. More than just alternatives to live animal testing, these microsystems, no bigger than a thumbnail, could allow more drugs to be tested and more rapidly, accelerating the development of new treatments.
Written by Emmanuelle Briolat
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