Parallel Bio serves up ‘clinical trial in a dish’ as animal model alternative

Immunology startup Parallel Bio has released a model of the human immune system that is said to capture the way immunotherapies affect the body more accurately than animals. The so-called “Clinical Trial in a Dish” can purportedly save drug companies up to $1 billion and more than six years of development time. 

“It’s clear that the industry’s reliance on animal testing and traditional clinical trials is due for a reset. We believe human biology itself holds the answer to a future where drugs are discovered faster than ever before," Juliana Hilliard, co-founder and chief scientific officer at Parallel, told Fierce Biotech Research in an email. "Clinical Trial in a Dish marks the first step toward human models that can take the place of animals and people to uncover drugs that work safely and effectively from the start.”

Parallel’s tech is being used to test 20 different drugs across five pharma companies so far, including two on the Fortune 500, that are developing vaccines and other therapies. 

Clinical Trial in a Dish is an ecosystem of organoids—tiny, three-dimensional, self-organizing structures that mimic the function of organs—that grow from human tissue. Their origin theoretically makes them better suited to early-stage research than mice or other animal models, which proponents of alternative testing solutions claim aren’t truly representative of human biology and are to blame for why so few drugs work once they get to the clinic. 

The first version of Parallel’s technology models the lymph nodes and the spleen, the central hubs of the immune response. The organoids are grown from donor patient cells and therefore retain that individual’s biology—a quality that Parallel claims makes them uniquely useful for reproducing human diversity that was previously limited to clinical trials. The company uses AI and robotics to scale up production of the organoids and analyze the results to produce “population-scale trials” and proprietary data, according to the release. 

Parallel formed during the COVID-19 pandemic with the goal of commercializing organoid models that are becoming more common in academic and some industry settings. The Y Combinator-backed startup told Fierce Biotech in 2021 that it plans to validate the technology on other companies' products before using it to develop its own. 

Given that the immune system is linked to virtually every disease, the company plans to keep it the center focus of its business. Future organoid systems, such as some that model the brain and the gut, will be developed based on partner demand and will link to the immune system model, Robert DiFazio, CEO and co-founder at Parallel, said via email.  

Parallel is seeking more pharmaceutical industry partnerships. The company cinched a $4.3 million seed round in late 2022, which was earmarked to build and launch Clinical Trial in a Dish and sign on five pharma partners. 

Editor's note: An earlier version of this article stated the Parallel's organoids are grown from human stem cells. It was corrected on May 22 to reflect that they are grown from human tissue donated by patients.