Studying how chemical or physical agents interact with our bodies to cause toxicity is fraught with challenges. Testing on human subjects raises ethical concerns, and studies in laboratory animals don’t always accurately mimic results seen in humans. Now scientists have created a 3D organ-on-chip models that can identify human interaction to potentially toxic chemicals in an external environment.

Nortis, a biotech company in Seattle, Washington, and the University of Washington recently announced the publication of the first study to show that 3D organ-on-chip human models for liver and kidney can be used to identify organ-organ interactions in response to known chemical toxicants using human cells. The university used the Nortis ParVivo system in the study. According to the Nortis website, the ParVivo system is an “in-vitro alternative to today’s laboratory animal models [that] better replicates the function of living human organs with the aim of reducing clinical trial failures.” The company’s technologies enable the generation of small segments of human tissues and organs in microfluidic chips (a set of micro-channels etched or molded into a material such as glass, silicon, or polymer) for the in vitro study of human health and disease. The press release about the study points out that the ParVivo system is a cost-effective approach for examining “organ-organ toxicological effects of pharmaceutical and environmental chemicals using human-derived cells.” In this way, researchers will be able to define and reduce factors that cause some toxicological conditions without relying on cost-prohibitive animal testing or ethically troubling human testing. Organ models currently under development by scientists and developers include applications for kidney, brain, liver, immune system, blood vessels, and various cancers.

Disposable chips that can simulate the human tissue microenvironment will not only alleviate the need to test on animals or humans, but can also accelerate research and advance scientific exploration. The hope is that the technology will aid in the development of therapeutic drugs that can treat cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, infectious diseases, cardiovascular disease, and stroke, and reduce the risk of harmful new drugs being introduced into the marketplace.