Reducing the number of animals used in the development of new drugs is a priority for the pharmaceutical industry.
US researchers have developed a microchip system that promises to do just that. The technology is called an "animal on a chip" - or, more scientifically, a microfluidic circuit. As well as cutting down the use of animals, the microchip could speed up drug development, and save costs, by increasing the efficiency of preclinical testing of new drugs.
The 22mm microfluidic circuit was initially developed by researchers at Cornell University. It is designed to assess the effects of a potential new drug compound in animals, or humans, in a high throughput manner. It is an in vivo surrogate.
In a keynote address at the British Pharmaceutical Conference on September 26, Dr Leslie Benet, professor of biopharmaceutical sciences at the University of California San Francisco, said: "What we are trying to do is to mimic what goes on in the body on a micro scale."
The idea is to run the chip as if it were, for example, a rat or a dog, and to be able to tell whether this particular animal is going to be appropriate for further testing.
Dr Benet says that the chip will save a lot of animal studies, but will not eliminate them. Animal testing will still be needed by the regulatory agencies for preclinical toxicology and efficacy testing. But the microfluidic system should make the animal tests more efficient by identifying which species is most relevant in a particular case.
Dr Benet explains: "At the moment, we don't know which animal is going to be useful. So the industry often carries out animal tests that turn out not to be predictive at all."
The chip should also provide data on how a drug is handled by the body, for example, how it is eliminated and how it is metabolised. These tests can ordinarily take a long time.
"We are talking about speeding up the early stages of drug development and applying a more rational approach to getting a drug into humans."
By assessing a drug's effect on different tissues, and by being able to mimic the normal interplay of enzymes and transporters, the new microchip should be more efficient than standard cell culture experiments.
Dr Benet is chairman of the scientific advisory board for the Hurel Corporation, a company that has been set up to commercialise the microchip. The system is currently being validated.