$3 Million NIH Grant to Further 3-D Tissue Chip Research at Duke

Duke researchers receive grant renewal of more than $3 million to fund second phase of a project to create integrated tissue chips for testing pharmaceuticals

By Ken Kingery

One of the more difficult aspects of developing new pharmaceuticals is predicting the wide variety of ways that the human body will react to them. Researchers can expose new drugs to individual animal or human cells and conduct animal studies to try to determine their effects, but the results aren’t always telling.

In fact, approximately 80 percent of candidate drugs fail in clinical trials because they are found to be unsafe or ineffective in humans. More than 30 percent of promising medications fail due to toxicity. Besides being disheartening, these failure rates add to the prohibitively expensive costs of drug development.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is trying to find a better way. For the past two years, they have funded a number of teams working in the Tissue Chip for Drug Screening program to improve ways of predicting drug safety and effectiveness. The program’s goal is to create 3-D human tissue chips and combine them into an integrated system that mimics the complex functions of the human body, so that promising pharmaceuticals can be better tested before entering human trials.

On September 23, the NIH announced funding for the next stage of the program. Led by the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS), the program will support 11 institutions at $17 million in 2014, including a team at Duke University.

Led by George Truskey, senior associate dean for research in the Pratt School of Engineering, Duke’s team has spent the past two years developing a microphysiological system for skeletal muscle and small diameter blood vessels using human primary cells. Their goal is to make a miniaturized muscle/vascular system that behaves like a real person’s and can interact with similar chips mimicking other organ systems.

The group has already developed human skeletal muscle bundles that contract, exhibit key physiological behaviors and replicate the typical response to a number of drugs. For the next phase, they have received a grant renewal for more than $3 million over the next three years to further develop the platform. Their goals are to develop human skeletal muscle tissue to evaluate physiological and pathophysiological responses, develop engineered blood vessel systems that mimic disease states and assess the system’s response to drugs with known side effects.

Working on the project with Truskey are Nenad Bursac, the Rooney Family Associate Professor of Bioengineering at Duke; William Reichert, the Alan L. Kaganov Professor of Biomedical Engineering at Duke; Charles Gersbach, assistant professor of biomedical engineering at Duke; William Kraus, professor of medicine and nursing at Duke University Medical Center; Timothy Koves, assistant professor of medicine at Duke University Medical Center; Kam Leong, professor of biomedical engineering at Columbia University; and Xuanhe Zhao, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Fifteen NIH Institutes and Centers are involved in the program. Current funding is being provided by NCATS, the National Institute for Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering, the National Cancer Institute, Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, NIH Common Fund, and NIH Office of Research on Women’s Health.