Cell culture chip could replace some animal tests

(Credit: Olivier Frey/ETH Zurich)

A new cell culture method could let scientists forgo certain tests on animals in the future.

A team led by scientists from the department of biosystems at ETH Zurich in Basel developed the cell culture technology platform for testing interactions between chemical and pharmaceutical compounds and 3D body tissue samples. While conventional cell culture experiments are performed using a 2D cell layer in a petri dish, the new technology relies on a chip that accommodates small 3D tissue spheroids that are barely half a millimeter in diameter.

“The three-dimensional microtissues better mimic organ tissue behavior in a living body in comparison to conventional cell cultures and thus provide more meaningful results,” says Olivier Frey, a senior assistant in professor Andreas Hierlemann’s lab who was largely responsible for developing the new method.

The main features of the cell culture chips include four—or six in the latest chip generation—wells where tissue spheroids go and two reservoirs for the nutrient medium. A microchannel connects all wells and the reservoirs. Rocking or tilting motions of the chip or well plate slightly move the tissue spheroids and enable continuous perfusion and supply of nutrients and dosage of compounds.

Another unique feature of the new technology is that scientists can combine spheroids made from different tissues in one chip so that they can easily test compound interactions and impact on various tissue types.

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More specifically, the new technology will allow scientists to test the efficacy of compounds to see, for example, whether a potential cancer drug inhibits the growth of tumor cells. By combining tumor and liver tissue in a single chip, researchers are additionally able to test whether the hepatic metabolism decreases or enhances the activity of the active agent, and whether the respective agent is toxic to the liver. In addition to testing drug candidates, it may also be possible to use the newly developed technology in personalized medicine.

In addition to combining cancer and liver tissues, which scientists have tested in their proof-of-concept study, other tissue combinations are conceivable. Researchers are now planning to work on a system including microtissues of organs affected by diabetes: the pancreas and liver.

In contrast to conventional cell culture experiments, the microtissue-based method is useful for providing more comprehensive answers to complex biomedical questions, many of which required animal experiments up to now. The technology offers the potential to reduce the number of animal experiments in biomedical research.

On November 2, an international panel of experts awarded the researchers the Global 3Rs Award/Europe, an international prize for research efforts to reduce animal experiments.

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Efforts towards a more humane, ethical handling of laboratory animals are often subsumed under the term “3R”. The three Rs are for “replacement” (replacing animal testing with experiments that do not require animals); “reduction” (reducing the number of animals that are used for testing); and “refinement” (limiting the impact on the animals during a trial along with better experimental planning).

The new technology comes from an EU research project called “Body on a Chip,” which the ETH Zurich spinoff Insphero coordinated. The new technology is currently part of a project supported by the Swiss Federation’s Commission for Technology and Innovation in collaboration with Insphero and the pharmaceutical company Roche.

“If this test phase in industry is successful, it will be possible to think about marketing the device,” says Hierlemann.

Source: ETH Zurich