17 universities win NIH cash for tissue chip/drug safety testing

The National Institutes of Health is moving ahead with a $70 million initiative to promote the development of tissue chips for drug research, a hybrid of computers and tissue engineering that could give scientists a viable alternative to the use of animals in preclinical trials.

Seventeen universities won the new grants, to which the NIH will commit up to $70 million over 5 years. Winning research projects will take place at top tier universities and facilities including Harvard, Cornell, Duke, Vanderbilt and Johns Hopkins universities, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center, the University of Pittsburgh and the University of California.

Never heard of tissue chips? They're essentially envisioned as transparent 3-D microchips blended with living cells and tissues to form tiny models that mimic the complex biological functions of human organs such as the lungs, liver or heart and are about as small as a quarter or a key.

It is an intriguing idea, because scientists could theoretically use this tech to test the safety of drugs and quite possibly gain more accurate and quicker data by testing on human cells. Drugs that show promise in preclinical animal trials don't always work in human trials. According to the NIH, more than 30% of drugs that show promise fail once they reach human testing because of unknown toxicity issues. By using a tissue chip, researchers hope they could more accurately test if a drug will be both safe and effective in human patients.

"Serious adverse effects and toxicity are major obstacles in the drug development process," said Thomas Insel, acting director of the NIH's newly created National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences, in a statement. He noted that the tissue chip program could bypass the issue by establishing early whether a drug is safe and works on human tissue, "ultimately increasing the quality and number of therapies available for patients."

Dubbed the Tissue Chip for Drug Screening Initiative, the program comes from NCATS. As the NIH explains in its promotion of the program, it represents a collaboration/resource sharing effort between the NIH, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the FDA, the NIH's Common Fund and the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

- read the release