A small medical device could help reduce the need for medical testing on mice, and be more accurate.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has given Vanderbilt University a $2.1 million grant to develop a “microbrain” that could speed up drug development, cut costs, and curb false hopes, reports The Tennessean. The device is a microfabricated bioreactor — the size of a grain of rice — that mimics how organs respond to experimental medicines.
Vanderbilt is one of 17 research institutions that received funding. Those research centers are focusing on creating tiny devices that will reveal how much human cells in the brain, heart, lung, and other organs react to medicines. An overarching goal of NIH’s funding is to solve brain function mysteries to obesity, Alzheimer’s disease, epilepsy, and viral infections. Besides offering more efficient drug testing, the microbrain also may be used to understand better how the brain processes and reacts to environmental toxins and other chemical agents.
The device is structured to accept human brain cells donated by patients and be connected to tubes as thin as spiderweb threads that supply cerebral spinal fluid and other substances. Internal sensors gauge how the cells respond to drug molecules.
“It eventually will save time,” says John P. Wikswo, a professor of biomedical engineering and molecular physiology at Vanderbilt, who is heading the project. “It will clearly save money. More importantly, it has significant implications for all of biology and medicine because you get to see how organs interact in a much more controlled way than you can in a whole animal.”
Because mice have genes that are very similar to humans’ and can be genetically engineered to mimic human diseases, such as diabetes and cancer, they are often used in research. But positive drug tests on mice often do not result in the same effect on humans. More than 30% of the medicines that who promise in animal studies turn out to be toxic in human trials, NIH says.
This is the reason why microfabrication has such promise. The Vanderbilt team will initially focus on how three naturally occurring blood-brain barriers react to substances. These barriers act like club bouncers: letting some substances through, but blocking others from entering. The effect is to alter the chemistry of potential drug therapies.
Another team member, Donald J. Alcendor, a professor of microbiology, said the medical device could help with the discovery of treatment for AIDS-related dementia and non-viral brain diseases if it can identify pathways for drugs to get around the bottleneck causes by the barriers.
BethAnn McLaughlin, a professor of neurology at Vanderbilt, believes the medical device is a tool to make many discoveries. “Not a single drug has passed FDA approval to protect the brain from stroke, and we only have one that breaks up clots,” she says. “We need to do better.”
Source: “Vanderbilt team develops ‘microbrain’ in quest for life-saving drugs,” The Tennessean, 8/10/12
Dale McGeehon has been a journalist and editor for more than 25 years, covering chemical regulation and testing for Pesticides and Toxic Chemical News and innovations in material sciences for the National Technology Transfer Center. His writing credits include Omni and College Park magazines and The New York Times.