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Defense Department funds tech to test organ tissue in lieu of humans

Scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, with funding from the Department of Defense, want to speed up the clinical trial process with a device that could enable researchers to test new drugs on organ tissue grown in a lab instead of on humans and animals. Called “body on a chip,” their device is roughly the size of a book and can engineer tissues from as many as 10 organs. MIT Professor Linda Griffith leads the effort and joins Hari Sreenivasan.

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  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    What if we could test new drugs without human and animal trials? At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers have developed what is being called the "body on a chip" — a device roughly the size of a paperback book that may do just that. Hari Sreenivasan recently spoke with MIT professor Linda Griffith who is leading the team developing this new technology. She joins him via Skype from Cambridge, Massachusetts.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    First explain how it would work.

  • LINDA GRIFFITH:

    So, you want to study a disease, for example. The disease is affecting three organs in the body. You would build a model of that and then build an experiment that represents that using human cells and components.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    So these are on a cellular level, mimicking what a particular organ that I would have does?

  • LINDA GRIFFITH:

    Actually, even better than that because we built a little model of that organ or at least parts of that organ. So your organs have billions and billions of cells, we combine many different kinds of cells from each organ together in a 3D model, then we connect them together so they talk to each other like they would in the body. This is really important for things like arthritis, Alzheimer's, where you've got multiple organs involved. You need to be a model in vitro that's human, talking to each other.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    When a new drug is introduced, you can study how it might affect my liver and my pancreas and my bladder at the same time?

  • LINDA GRIFFITH:

    Absolutely. We are right now doing gut-liver-pancreas, and gut-liver-brain but you got the idea. And part of it is not just to say how will the drug affect this but we can even say, what should the drug even be? Because right now, the hardest thing is to figure out what kind of drug will be good for treating a complicated disease.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    How do you account for how human bodies have immune systems built in? I mean it seems like our own bodies sometimes reject or accept drugs based on how we're built?

  • LINDA GRIFFITH:

    Yes. Almost every disease that we have a difficult time solving involves the immune system and that's so different in humans than in mice. So our system actually has part of the immune system, it has some of the livers innate immune system, the gut innate immune system. Other parts have to be trained. And this is much harder to do.

    We have a project with a pharmaceutical company where we're doing exactly that. And this is very early stage but this is going to happen in the future. This is where the whole field is going to incorporate the immune system so we can study these really complicated diseases including cancer, Alzheimer's and so on that involved the immune system.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Does this help bring about that idea of personalized medicine in the future? I mean, could I essentially run almost a clinical trial based on my own organs of my own body and see if this drug is right for me versus you?

  • LINDA GRIFFITH:

    Sort of, maybe. The cost will have to come down to have it be personal. But think about it. I studied disease called endometriosis, about 10 percent of women have this. We published the first paper doing a molecular classification into a few groups of patients.

    So you can imagine maybe there's 10 groups of patients and now you will figure out how to make a drug for each of those 10 groups and they we will figure out how do we test you so that we can see which group you fall in. Then you can take the right drug without having to build you because building you is a very personal thing.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    And is there an acceleration in this field like there is in computers? Meaning does it get cheaper over time and faster over time?

  • LINDA GRIFFITH:

    We would expect the analogy to hold. You can imagine it's kind of like building an iPhone. And to make the iPhone work, you had to invent the phonograph and then the cassette tape player, you had to invent television, you had to in the computer. So a lot of things came together. This is very similar.

    There have to be huge advances in biology, materials science, and actually in engineering because we need engineers who think about how do we model the human body? How do we think about information flow and design these systems? You've got to design them before you build them.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    How soon until this is out in the wild, so to speak?

  • LINDA GRIFFITH:

    Some parts are going out in the wild, if you count like Amgen or other people we work with the wild. It's going, again, to be sort of like the cellphone because the individual elements that are needed to make it happen are all moving quickly in parallel and starting to come together.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Linda Griffith of MIT, thanks so much for joining us.

  • LINDA GRIFFITH:

    Thank you for having me.

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