In Vitro Toxicology

Hongfang Lu, Daniele Zink and Jackie Y. Ying

One of the ironies of modern progress is that the very products that we create to improve our lives may themselves contain or generate compounds that are harmful to our body and the environment. Chemicals in common consumer products like plastic containers, toothpaste and detergents have been found to cause adverse health effects and endanger marine life. Medicine designed to treat a specific illness may in turn damage healthy cells and organs. Therefore, companies need a reliable way to determine how their products affect humans before they are released to the market.

Traditionally, animal models have been used for toxicity studies but they are very expensive and often fail to predict actual human responses because of interspecies differences in physiology. Another approach is to use in vitro culture models, where tests are conducted on human cells in the lab. However, these labor-intensive studies typically use only a single cell type so they cannot accurately predict how a complex human organ in the body would react to a specific compound.

To overcome the limitations of current technology, we are designing multifunctional microfluidic devices for in vitro toxicity testing. These devices comprise transparent microchips that closely mimic the microenvironment of human organs in the body. Human cells are presented on 2D synthetic cell culture substrates or in 3D porous hydrogels to enhance their growth and functions. Currently, we are developing and integrating human organ chips representing the kidney, liver, heart, lung and pancreas. Our goal is to engineer an automated biosystem for high-throughput toxicological screening of drugs, consumer care products, food ingredients and environmental pollutants.