You don’t have to be a member of PETA to acknowledge the necessary horrors of drug research that many animals must endure for the sake of our health and, sadly, our vanity. Fortunately, if you are a lover of animals and detest animal testing of any sort, then take comfort in the fact that researchers all over the world are working in earnest to develop an alternative method of medical testing that does not involve the in vivo evisceration of Spot and Oscar. Yeah, I just went there.
In a joint partnership with the Institute for Biotechnology at the Technical University (TU) of Berlin, researchers at the Dresden-based institute are refining a new method they hope will someday make animal testing obsolete. The new method involves the use of a “synthetic organism on a miniature chip” that accurately replicates the metabolic processes of the human body. “Our system is a mini-organism on a 1:100,000 scale to the human being,” says Dr. Frank Sonntag of the Fraunhofer Institute for Material and Beam Technology IWS.
This new system takes cells from human organs and strategically places them on a chip. Once nestled inside their respective chambers, the cells are then connected to each other through tiny canals that, with help from a micro-pump, recreates human blood circulation.
Given the extreme miniaturization of the microfluidic system, the chip can achieve consistent flow rates at an impressive 0.5 microliters (µl/s) per second. This allows the solution that flows through the canals to interact with all of the cells at the same time, which authentically mimics the human circulation of blood in a way no other system of similar design has yet accomplished. As a result, these chips can be used to test a variety of experimental drugs and their effects on real human cells that stand in for larger organs, skipping the need for animal testing entirely.
Although this method is still being refined, a future free of animal cruelty for the purposes of scientific research is a very real, and near, possibility.