NIH taps StemoniX's organ-on-a-chip for opioid, addiction research

The NIH’s National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences is teaming up with StemoniX to use its brain-on-a-chip platform to test new treatments for pain, opioid misuse and addiction. 

Under an addiction-focused program dubbed NIH HEAL (Helping to End Addiction Long-term), the partners will screen a library of opioid and neuronal signaling compounds using the platform, known as microBrain 3D. MicroBrain is a functioning, spherical human micro-organ built from induced pluripotent stem cells designed for high-throughput drug screening. It comes in two versions, 2D and 3D, which, as the names suggest, come in 2D form on a plate or in spherical form.

Instead of relying on animal models and limited human testing to predict drug interactions, the hope is StemoniX's micro-organs make those predictions more accurately and earlier in the drug development process.

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The pair is looking for what they call a signature opioid response in the microBrain that would allow them to prescreen drug candidates and reject—or at least study closely—potentially addictive compounds, StemoniX said in a statement. They could also zero in on less addictive compounds. 

“More than 115 Americans die from opioid overdose every day. New, safe interventions are urgently needed to combat opioid misuse and addiction, and to treat pain. Through the HEAL initiative, NCATS is conducting research into 3D models of pain, opioid addiction and overdose to advance new treatments,” said Marc Ferrer, Ph.D., an investigator at the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences and leader of its Biomolecular Screening and Probe Development team. 

“This collaboration represents a new approach to the problem by utilizing human models earlier in pain research,” said StemoniX CEO and co-founder Ping Yeh, in the statement. “Therefore, this is an ideal application for microBrain 3D, which brings human biology to high-throughput drug screening for efficacy and toxicity in order to bring safer and more effective drugs to patients more quickly.”

In addition to microBrain, StemoniX offers microHeart—spontaneously beating heart cells on a plate—for screening drugs and modeling heart disease. The Minnesota-based company raised a $14.4 million B round in February from Alumni Ventures Group, Brightstone Venture Capital, Crescent Ridge Partners, Keshif Ventures, the Mayo Clinic and SEED San Diego. 

StemoniX earmarked the funds to expand its commercial operations at sites in Minnesota and California as well as to support the development of new products and services.