FDA Looks to Liver on a Chip as an Alternative to Animal Testing

The current system for testing drug and food toxicology under the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) standards uses animal models to determine possible toxicity in humans. However, this can be problematic because humans and animals can react differently to the same foods. For example, chocolate and grapes are toxic to dogs, but are harmless to humans.[1] In addition to animal models falling short, there are also many ethical implications of giving potentially toxic chemicals to animals. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) often speaks against the use of animals in drug trials and details the sometimes cruel conditions that these animals have to live under. [2] However, under the current FDA regulations food and drug companies are not presented with plausible alternatives.

The FDA is now beginning to look into approving the use of liver-on-a-chip systems for food and drug testing. [1] A liver-on-a-chip system is part of a larger push to create viable organ systems in the lab that are derived from pluripotent stem cells. [3] The chip systems for the liver include different types of liver cells and fluorescent biosensors. [4] These fluorescent biosensors can show indications of cell damage and death in the lab system. In addition to modeling healthy liver tissues, scientists at the University of California Berkeley are creating tissue systems that model genetic disorders. These models can then be used to test the efficacy and toxicity of new drugs.

Supporters of this new technology argue that it will be more accurate and will reduce the number of toxic drugs brought to human trials. [3] Instead of drugs passing pre-clinical trials in animals and then failing in human trials, these drugs will never be brought to human trials and can possibly contribute to a reduced number of people becoming ill from clinical trials. The senior vice president of PETA, Kathy Guillermo, states “animals don’t have to suffer through poisoning tests to improve health care for humans, and we’re thrilled that the FDA is taking action.” [1]

Although the technology is moving in a forward direction, the FDA is the first organization worldwide to consider using this technique. Many still urge that it is in early stages of development and it might be a while until liver-on-a-chip is used as the primary form of testing for the FDA. There are still issues with delivery and systemic issues that liver-on-a-chip systems can not properly model. The systems are too localized and do not give a holistic look into the effects of possibly toxic drugs. [1]

The technology’s developers across the country are hopeful and they deem their results promising. People at PETA look to liver-on-a-chip systems for a future solution for animal testing and reduced risk in human clinical trials.


[1] Reardon, Sara. "Miniature liver on a chip could boost US food safety." Nature News. April 12, 2017. Accessed April 18, 2017. http://www.nature.com/news/miniature-liver-on-a-chip-could-boost-us-food-safety-1.21818.

[2]"U.S. Government Animal Testing Programs." PETA. Accessed April 18, 2017. http://www.peta.org/issues/animals-used-for-experimentation/us-government-animal-testing-programs/.

[3]"About Tissue Chip ." National Institutes of Health. Accessed April 18, 2017. https://ncats.nih.gov/tissuechip/about.

[4]"Meet Chip: Liver." National Institutes of Health. May 15, 2015. Accessed April 18, 2017. https://ncats.nih.gov/tissuechip/chip/liver.

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