Academics and pharmaceutical companies hope that technology based on human cells will help them gradually drive mice and monkeys out of laboratories. From the report: The umbrella term for the new field is microphysiological systems, or MPS, which include tochoids, organoids, and organs-on-a-chip. Organoids are grown from stem cells to create three-dimensional tissue in a dish that resembles miniature human organs; heart organoids, for example, beat like the real thing. Organs-on-a-chip are plastic blocks lined with stem cells and a circuit that stimulates the organ’s mechanics. “We need to systematically phase out animals,” says Salim Abdul Karim, a leading South African expert on infectious diseases. “This assumes that regulators get data that shows that non-animal biological systems will give us comparable, if not better, information.” Nathalie Brandenburg co-founded Swiss startup Sun Bioscience in 2016 to create standardized versions of the organoids, making it easier to trust the comparability of results and convince scientists and regulators to use them. “When we started, we needed to tell people what organoids were,” she says, referring to the early stage of her research journey.
In the past two years, especially when scientists came out of the adjustment — when many had time to read about the technology — demand from big pharmaceutical companies for Sun’s products has skyrocketed, she says. Companies are increasingly interested in reducing reliance on animals for ethical reasons, says Aron Tolley, chief executive of Aptamer Group, which creates artificial antibodies for use in diagnostics and medicine. “People are becoming more responsible in terms of corporate governance, and if necessary, they are looking to abolish animal testing,” he says. Using larger animals, such as monkeys, is particularly problematic, Tolley adds. “The bigger and likable they get, the more people are aware of their impact.” Rare diseases are particularly fertile ground for models based on human tissue, says James Hickman, chief scientific officer at Hesperos, a Florida-based organ-on-a-chip company. “There are 7,000 rare diseases, and only 400 are actively researched because there are no animal models,” Hickman says. “We’re not just talking about replacing animals or reducing the number of animals, these systems are filling a void where animal models don’t exist.”