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Researchers build the world’s most sophisticated lab model of the human body

Printing a human kidney - Anthony Atala

In what initially sounds like a blend of Frankenstein and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, scientists at the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine (WFIRM) have built the world’s most advanced model of a human body ever created in a lab. Complete with a system of organs, such as heart, liver and lungs, that function a whole lot like the real thing, the body model was built to replicate as closely as possible the reactions of an actual human body. The difference? Each miniaturized organ is around one-millionth the size of a real-life adult organ.

“To create the model, tiny samples of human tissue cells are isolated and engineered into miniature versions of the human organ,” Anthony Atala, director of WFIRM, told Digital Trends. “They can contain blood vessel cells, immune system cells, and even fibroblasts, the cells in the connective tissue. We designed the integrated platform, or multi-tissue chip, supporting multiple tissue types under a common recirculating fluid. The system, depending on how many tissues it uses, can be designed to fit an area about the size of a deck of cards.”

The “body” doesn’t actually look like a body. Instead, it’s a series of chips and microfluidic devices. The purpose wasn’t to build a recognizable miniature human, but rather a testing platform which functions and reacts like the body it’s based on. For instance, each organ contains blood vessel cells, immune system cells, and fibroblasts, the cells found in connective tissue. The heart beats around 60 times per minute, the lung breathes air from its surroundings, and the liver is used to break down toxic compounds into waste products.

The aim of building this test platform is to better predict and test how a human will react to new drug treatments. This can be used to detect harmful and adverse effects of drugs during the development stage before they enter clinical trials in patients. This can help speed up the process of bringing drugs to market, while also lowering the cost of clinical trials and reducing or even eliminating animal testing.

As part of their research, the team tested the system by using it to screen 10 drugs taken off the market by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. When these drugs were tested in cell culture, animals and human clinical trials, no negative side effects were identified until they were being widely used by humans. At that point, it was discovered that the drugs could be harmful to people. The system developed at WFIRM was able to detect this toxicity, matching the damage found in humans.

Luke Dormehl
I'm a UK-based tech writer covering Cool Tech at Digital Trends. I've also written for Fast Company, Wired, the Guardian…
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