Breakthroughs in chip technology and how they may end animal testing has been in the news a lot lately. We’re all for anything that actually helps to eliminate animal research, but let’s take a closer look at these products.

First, what is an organ on a chip? They are not computer microchips, as one would think. Basically, they are polymer or glass slides coated with human cells that have been configured to mimic a particular tissue or interface between tissues.

There’s one for blood clots that actually has to be tested on animals first before being tested in humans. The National Institutes of Health has developed one that simulates a placenta on a chip.

One online story even says it will revolutionize medical science. Will it? Perhaps – but not for a while.

One type of chip has even won a design competition in London, so it’s definitely having its moment in the spotlight.

The Wyss Institute at Harvard is behind much of this breakthrough technology. The Washington Post reports

In 2010, Ingber’s lab successfully developed a human breathing-lab-on-a-chip, which was followed, and is still being followed, by multiple others, including a human disease model-on-a-chip, a liver-on-a-chip, a small airway-on-a-chip, a peristaltic human gut-on-a-chip and a human blood brain barrier-on-a-chip.

All of these add up to incredible progress, but we still need animal research. While it’s important to understand how a virus or a toxin might effect the lungs, scientists need to have a complete picture including the heart, brain and the rest of the body. Activists opposed to animal research claim that animals are too far removed from human systems to be reliable, and yet these chips are even further removed from humans. And the researchers behind these chips readily admit that more animal testing is needed before becoming widely available to humans. And chips or not, any new drug must first be tested in healthy humans for safety, according to one researcher.

Testing for specific diseases is only a small part of the vast world of animal research. Much of what researchers study is basic research, which doesn’t have easy-to-explain clinical applications. Basic biomedical research is the quest for knowledge about how organisms and pathogens function. The applicability of these studies to human health may not always be immediately obvious. For example, one might question the purpose of determining the precise molecular structure of the vitamin folic acid. However, it was this type of investigation that led directly to the synthesis of the first successful anti-leukemia drugs during the 1950s and 1960s. Used in combination, these medicines halved the death rate for leukemia, which had been the second greatest killer of children during the mid-20th century.

What the chips don’t replicate? Neuroscience, immunology, genomics, virology, stem cell biology, just to name a few major areas of research.

Today, chips offer early screening tools to help answer some simple questions about how a drug might interact in a “model of lung tissue” or a “model of kidney tissue”. They might weed out drugs that don’t appear to work in lung cells or kidney cells – for now and the foreseeable future, we must continue to rely on lab animals.

Pharmaceutical companies have expressed interest in the chips but are proceeding with caution. The primary drawback, some say, is that the chips may not capture certain crucial aspects of living physiology the way whole animal tests do.

So, organs on a chip show promise. And will most likely be an important addition to the biomedical research arsenal. There’s no telling what the future of this technology might hold.

However, to say they will eliminate animal testing any time soon is simply not true.

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