A new project is on the brink of revolutionizing the way we screen new drugs and toxic agents, creating surrogate human organs, coupled with insights from highly sensitive mass spectrometry technologies.
ATHENA, the Advanced Tissue-engineered Human Ectypal Network Analyzer project team, is developing four human organ constructs - liver, heart, lung and kidney - that are based on a significantly miniaturized platform. Each organ component will be about the size of a smartphone screen, and the whole ATHENA "body" of interconnected organs would fit neatly on a desk.
"By developing this 'homo minutus,' we are stepping beyond the need for animal or Petri dish testing: There are huge benefits in developing drug and toxicity analysis systems that can mimic the response of actual human organs," said Rashi Iyer, a senior scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory, the lead laboratory on the five-year, $19 million multi-institutional effort.
The project is supported by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA)."By creating a holistic dynamic system that more realistically mimics the human physiological environment than static human cells in a dish, we can understand chemical effects on human organs as never before," she said.
"The ultimate goal is to build a lung that breathes, a heart that pumps, a liver that metabolizes and a kidney that excretes -- all connected by a tubing infrastructure much akin to the way blood vessels connect our organs. While some skeptics might believe that this is a utopian dream," she said, "the team is confident that this is indeed achievable."
Some 40 percent of pharmaceuticals fail their clinical trials, Iyer noted, and there are thousands of chemicals whose effects on humans are simply unknown. Providing a realistic, cost-effective and rapid screening system such as ATHENA with high-throughput capabilities could provide major benefits to the medical field, screening more accurately and offering a greater chance of clinical trial success.