Apr. 17 - Researchers at Vanderbilt University are developing an artificial liver as part of a larger system of synthetic organs being built to test drugs. If successful, the technology will not only change the way drugs are developed and tested, but also provide doctors with a way to personalise treatment for patients with conditions like heart disease and cancer. Ben Gruber has more
Professor John Wikswo is checking in on his micro-liver, a miniaturized device designed to keep human liver cells alive, by mimicking the environment inside a real liver. Wikswo, a physicist and biomedical engineer at Vanderbilt University, helps lead the $19 million dollar ATHENA project, an ambitious effort to interconnect four synthetic micro organs, a heart, liver, kidney and lungs, to produce a human replica for drug and chemical testing. (SOUNDBITE)( English) JOHN WIKSWO, PROFESSOR OF BIOMEDICAL SCIENCE AND PHYSICS, VANDERBILT UNIVERSITY, SAYING: "Mice and rats are not good models of people when you are trying to understand the effects of drugs, both good and bad, and the effects of environmental toxins." But Wikswo says the ATHENA project will create the IDEAL model. It will keep human cells alive long enough for testing and analysis…to see for example, if a drug that proves effective in treating liver cancer, has any adverse affect on the heart or kidneys. But Wikswo says one crucial goal of the research is to design a system that's inexpensive and accessible to the entire medical community. (SOUNDBITE)( English) JOHN WIKSWO, PROFESSOR OF BIOMEDICAL SCIENCE AND PHYSICS, VANDERBILT UNIVERSITY, SAYING: "You got to keep the cost low so someone can have hundreds or thousands of these running in their lab, and you have to pay attention to the analytical chemistry, you have to figure out what is being said by the organ." To do that Wikswo hands his micro-organ over to John Mclean, an associate professor of Chemistry. McLean connects it to a device called an ion mobility mass spectrometer, which deconstructs and analyses the fluids within the system one molecule at a time. It's a process that could one day be used to personalize cancer treatment based on the chemical make-up of a tumour. (SOUNDBITE) (ENGLISH) JOHN MCLEAN, ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OF CHEMISTRY, VANDERBILT UNIVERSITY, SAYING: "So what you would do is look at how those particular cells in that tumour respond to different parts of chemotherapy such that what you could do is call the physician the next day and say use drug number seven." (SOUNDBITE)( English) JOHN WIKSWO, PROFESSOR OF BIOMEDICAL SCIENCE AND PHYSICS, VANDERBILT UNIVERSITY, SAYING: "The trick is to make it not too simple but simple enough and then ask it the questions that are most important." And those important questions could save lives. The micro liver is expected to be connected to a micro-heart, kidney and lungs within two years. John Wikswo says he's looking forward to seeing the completed puzzle.