Sophisticated ‘human body’ lab model for pharmaceutical R&D

Written by Georgi Makin

Scientists from Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine (NC, USA) have announced the development of the ‘world’s most sophisticated laboratory model of the human body’, that could have a significant impact on screening potential pharmaceuticals coming to market.

Scientists from Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine (WFRIM; NC, USA) have announced the development of the ‘world’s most sophisticated laboratory model of the human body’, comprised of a system of miniature organs.

The team reports that the system holds great potential in the screening of drugs or adverse or harmful effects prior to administration to patients, as well as in reducing the cost and demand for animal testing during clinical trials.  

The miniature organs are constructed from many different human cell types, combined into tissues that represent organs including the human heart, liver and lungs. Each structure is approximately one millionth of the size of an adult human organ, suitable for mimicking organ responses and for use as a testing or prediction platform.

“The most important capability of the human organ tissue system is the ability to determine whether or not a drug is toxic to humans very early in development, and its potential use in personalized medicine,” explained Anthony Atala, MD of WFIRM.

“Weeding out problematic drugs early in the development or therapy process can literally save billions of dollars and potentially save lives,” Atala continued.

The team at WFIRM has reported that the model has already been used to measure toxicity in many drugs that had initially been approved for use in humans but later removed from the market. Toxicity may not have been detected in initial rounds of testing using standard 2D cell culture systems and animal models for these drugs, but the WFIRM system was reportedly capable of detecting toxicity and replicating the adverse effects displayed in humans.  

Described in Biofabrication, the team acknowledges that due to the individual requirements of each individual tissue, a ‘toolbox’ of biofabrication techniques was used to create each miniature organ.

Isolated samples of human cells were engineered into miniature organs, containing blood vessel, immune system and fibroblast cells, enabling the miniature organs to perform the same functions observed in the human body.

“We knew very early on that we needed to include all of the major cell types that were present in the original organ. In order to model the body’s different responses to toxic compounds, we needed to include all of the cell types that produce these responses,” added Aleks Skardal (Ohio State University; OH, USA).

The blood circulatory system is another hallmark of the WFIRM model. According to the team, each system contains a media capable of delivering nutrients and oxygen to the miniature organs and removing waste. Employing microfluidics has allowed the team to incorporate such a small and intricate circulatory system into the model, recirculating samples in a similar mechanism to the heart in a human body.

“Creating microscopic human organs for drug testing was a logical extension of the work we have accomplished in building human-scale organs,” concluded Thomas Shupe (WFIRM). “Many of the same technologies we have developed at the human-scale level, like including a very natural environment for the cells to live in, also produced excellent results when brought down to the microscopic level.”

The team states that as the models are engineered containing the right cells in the right numbers from the right species, the data collected may be far more predictive of biological responses expected in humans.

Sources: Skardal A, Aleman J, Forsythe S et al. Drug compound screening in single and integrated multi-organoid body-on-a-chip systems. Biofabrication. 12(2), 025017, (2020);

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