New biochips could replace animal testing

Taking the 'lab' out of 'lab rat' -- chips mimic human reaction to chemicals

A new biochip could all but eliminate animal testing in the chemical and cosmetics industries, while drastically reducing it in the mega pharmaceuticals industry.

Animal testing has long been a dark side of medical and chemical advances. Mice, rats, rabbits and even cats and dogs have undergone lab experiments to see if the next life-saving beta blocker or the next big lipstick color would be toxic to humans. Now, a new chip may take the place of a lot of those lab rats and cats, according to Jonathan S. Dordick, a professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

The chip, noted Dordick, could cut animal testing in the pharmaceutical industry by a full 70%.

Dordick said that he and his team have developed two biochips that can be used to test the toxicity level of chemicals and drug candidates on human cells and organs.

At this point, he said, they are not computer chips. Instead, scientists place three-dimensional matrices made out of a seaweed-derived algenate on glass slides, explained Dordick. The spaces inside the matrices are filled with living human cells or liver enzymes. Researchers then can add the drug or chemical to the slide. After a period of time, the chip is stained. If the chemical has killed the cells, they'll appear to be red. If they cells are alive, they'll show up as fluorescent green.

Dordick is the co-founder of Solidus Biosciences, a Troy, N.Y. company he hopes will commercialize the chips. He noted that chemical, pharmaceutical and cosmetics companies that are interested in the technology have already contacted him.

"This is exciting work," Dordick told Computerworld. "In the pharmaceutical industry, they're looking not to stop animal testing but to try to do biochip testing earlier in the process and thus do less animal testing. I think it's a major advance."

The new biochips could be coming at a very good time for some industries.

For example, European regulations mandate that companies abolish animal testing by 2009 on any new ingredients added to cosmetics. Dordick noted that the chemical industry also looking for ways to reduce animal testing.

The chips will benefit more than just the animal kingdom, Dordick pointed out. About 70% of late-stage drug failures are due to toxicity problems, he noted, and by using the biochips to gauge toxicity earlier in the testing process, the number of costly failures would drop dramatically. Toxicity in a drug or chemical could make a person ill, could interfere with the drug's health benefits or even could kill someone.

And Dordick said that as work with the biochips progresses, they'll become more and more technical - taking on more characteristics of their computer chip counterparts.

"They might become more computer-like so you could interface the biological response with quantitative analysis," he said. "We're looking to develop a device that would do what we do manually, and then read and tabulate the results and give those results to the user... It will definitely be some kind of robot."

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