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Safer, faster, and more ethical drug development

Thanks to Emulate’s “organ-on-a-chip” technology, animal subjects may become a thing of the past

Safer, faster, and more ethical drug development
Researchers have used Emulate’s “organ-on-a-chip” technology to discover safer drug treatments for Parkinson’s and other diseases.

For nearly a century, the drug trial process has remained the same. Researchers use animal testing before advancing drugs to human clinical trials. But this method is imperfect. Animal models are not replicative of the human body, so the failure rate for many drugs that reach human trials is extremely high. What’s more, there are many ethical questions surrounding the use of animal subjects.

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To address these issues, Emulate, a Boston biotech company, developed a technology called “organ-on-a-chip.” The chip contains microfluidic channels that can be lined with human cell types, including liver, lung, brain, and intestinal cells. Fluid can be pumped through the device to replicate blood flow, and pressure can be applied to replicate a breathing lung, or peristalsis in the intestine, for example. “This is an evolution of sophistication,” says Jim Corbett, CEO of Emulate. “You have to create an environment that mimics human biology in order to develop safer and more effective drugs.”

Researchers have used Emulate’s technology to study Parkinson’s disease, simulating the brain inflammation that occurs in patients and studying the effect of various therapeutics. Because microdevice technology closely replicates human biology, it has the potential to increase drug development success rates, improve patient safety, and get drugs to market faster. This creative approach, with its industry-changing potential, has earned Emulate a spot on Fast Company’s list of the world’s Most Innovative Companies.

BROAD APPLICATIONS

Traditional models of drug research can be slow and potentially expose humans and animals to harm. Organ-on-a-chip technology could help bypass these issues. Emulate looked at 27 drugs, 22 of which had previously been found to be toxic in humans. This toxicity had resulted in 208 patient fatalities and 10 liver transplants, even though the drugs had been tested in lab animals before undergoing clinical trials with humans. Emulate’s organ chips, on the other hand, were able to identify 87% of these drugs as toxic. Had this technology been available from the start, these drugs would never have made it to human trials.

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“If we can get this technology in regular use up front in the research process, we could virtually eliminate drug-induced liver injury in clinical trials,” Corbett says.

Organ-on-a-chip technology has broad potential applications, especially in drug discovery. Corbett cites biologic therapies as an example. Because they are often developed to target specific human pathways, animal models become less effective.

TARGETED CURE

As the technology continues to develop, it could be used in personalized medicine. “Imagine you’re a cancer patient, and you have the ability to select from a menu of therapeutics and test them on a chip that contains your precise cell type,” Corbett says. “You could potentially find out what the right drug is at the right concentration before ever starting a treatment regimen.”

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Organ-on-a-chip technology can also help the drug industry move beyond animal testing. “The ethical issues around the current regulatory framework for drug testing are very real,” Corbett says. He acknowledges that though regulators need a new framework, they also need modern technologies to spur that evolution. “At Emulate our passionate team members are dedicated to improving the drug discovery process, so that everyone can live healthier and happier lives.”

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