National effort to create organs on a chip to speed development of safe medications

Local scientists are among the leaders of a new national initiative to build “organs on a chip”—living human tissue on a miniature platform that could be used to test potential medications for side effects, overcoming a major hurdle in drug development.

Nearly a third of experimental drugs fail only once they are tested in patients, because the tools scientists have to vet them earlier in development are a poor model of a human being. That problem spurred the National Institutes of Health, the US Food and Drug Administration, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to collborate on the search for solutions.

The five-year, $70 million initiative announced Tuesday by the National Institutes of Health provides support for 17 projects aiming to solve this problem. Recipients include a scientist from MIT focused on building a tool that could improve understanding of the spread of cancer, and a Harvard University effort to build the heart and lung on a chip.

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Separately, a team led by MIT in collaboration with researchers at Draper Laboratory in Cambridge, Ashland-based MatTek Corp., and Zyoxel Ltd. in the United Kingdom will receive up to $26.3 million from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency for the development of a circuit of tissues on chips that can mimic the body. Another team at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard, will receive up to $37 million from DARPA to build an integrated system of 10 organs on chips that could be used to test how a drug interacts with the body as a complete system.

“With innovative tools and methodologies, such as those developed by the tissue chip program, we may be able to accelerate the process by which we identify compounds likely to be safe in humans, saving time and money, and ultimately increasing the quality and number of therapies available for patients,” Dr. Thomas Insel, acting director of the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences, said in a statement.

Efforts to screen drug candidates better have ranged from developing sophisticated software that can better predict drugs’ side effects, to a lung on a chip.

In the new initiative, federal funders have chosen projects that range from recreating the complexity of the gut to building a 3-D model of human brain development in order to unravel the effects of genes and the environment.

Linda Griffith, a bioengineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is a leader of the large, multi-institutional effort to build a circuit of organs funded by the defense department.

Separately, she also received a grant from the NIH to address the problem that many models of cancer do not include the tumor’s immediate surroundings, which can play an important role in its response to treatment and its spread. Her team will develop a human liver on a chip that mimics what happens in the body—a bioreactor that will help in developing new approaches to understand and treat metastatic cancer.

Kevin Kit Parker, a bioengineer at Harvard University who has been studying marine life for clues about how to better mimic the human heart, will work on developing a heart and lung system on a chip. In 2009, his laboratory presented one step toward such a goal: a strip of heart muscle made from mouse embryonic stem cells that could cause a thin film to curl with each pulse.