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Director’s Corner

Sept. 29, 2016: A New Phase for NCATS’ Tissue Chip Program

Christopher Austin

Just five years ago, the idea of engineering a human-body-on-a-chip to predict drug safety and efficacy seemed more like science fiction than reality. But today, NCATS’ Tissue Chip for Drug Screening program, a collaborative initiative with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), is closer than ever to attaining that vision.

In the first two years of the program, researchers developed individual tissue chips that could mimic human organ structure, function, and physiological and drug responses more accurately than traditional cell- and animal-testing methods. Currently, there are tissue chips for the heart, liver, blood-brain barrier, blood vessels, kidney, gastrointestinal system, nervous system, and female reproductive system, as well as models of adipose (fat) tissue, tumors and metastasis.

During the next three years, teams of scientists joined forces to connect individual organ chips. Researchers collaborated to refine the chips and integrate them into systems that can mimic the complex interactions and diseases of the human body. This integration promises to enable real-time measurement of drug activity within and across various organs and tissues, such as in the liver and digestive system. Ultimately, the goal is to create an integrated body-on-a-chip that accurately models and predicts responses to new drugs, addressing and resolving common causes of drug development failure.

Now, I’m delighted to introduce the Tissue Chip program’s newest phase, in which laboratories other than other than those that created the chips will “test drive” them to determine if they perform as intended; this wider testing is critical to any new technology intended for widespread use, to ensure reproducibility, accuracy and reliability. Tissue Chip Testing Centers (TCTCs) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Texas A&M University will serve as testing sites, and a TCTC at the University of Pittsburgh will develop and maintain a database collating and sharing  methods, protocols and chip performance data among the TCTCs and the Tissue Chip Consortium, which consists of tissue chip technology developers; government experts representing the FDA and more than 15 NIH Institutes, Centers and Offices; and industry partners. In addition to conducting tests of technical functionality and robustness,  TCTC scientists will use drugs and investigational compounds vetted by pharmaceutical partners to determine biological validity — that is, whether the tissue chip platforms truly reproduce the effects that have been seen in humans who have taken these drugs.

Over the past five years, NCATS has catalyzed the development of this potentially revolutionary translational technology and has demonstrated its utility for accurately modeling human physiology, diseases and drug responses. This has been possible due to the application of the core NCATS values of collaboration, utility and exponential improvement in translational effectiveness. As the dissemination phase of the program begins, I am optimistic that tissue chips will one day be as commonplace as computer chips and will have an equally large impact, fundamentally improving the efficiency and effectiveness of the translational process and helping to get more treatments to more patients more quickly.

Christopher P. Austin, M.D.
Director
National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences