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A photo of the 3D printed plastic item mounted on a wooden display board

The novel device, invented by a team at the University of Edinburgh and supported by an Edinburgh College of Art technician, could replace the need for drug and chemical safety testing on animals. 

The plastic ‘body-on-chip’ device, which mimics how a drug moves through the body’s organs using PET imaging to validate its journey, was developed by a team at the University of Edinburgh’s Centre for Cardiovascular Science (CVS). 

The team worked collaboratively with Richard Collins, Specialist Technician in Digital Making, to develop and print the prototype in the workshop at Edinburgh College of Art (ECA). 

The project has received £260,000 from the Medical Research Council (MRC) to test the device using sterile materials, after its ability to replicate drug perfusion was proven and presented at the Microphysiological systems (MPS) World Summit in Germany this summer. 

The device’s five compartments contain human cells representing the heart, lungs, kidney, liver and brain, connected by channels that mimic the human circulatory system, through which a small molecule drug is pumped. 

I have been collaborating with the University’s Centre for Cardiovascular Science (CVS) for almost 10 years, developing digital designs and physical prototypes. 

These research projects feed into ECA research, teaching and practice and ECA students get access to fantastic technology that can be used in creative ways.

Richard Collins

Specialist Technician in Digital Making

The device was invented by Liam Carr, an in vitro pharmacology PhD student, with his supervisor and imaging expert Dr Adriana Tavares, also of the University’s Centre for Cardiovascular Science (CVS).  

Liam said: “Using mathematic modelling, we have found that the rate of transfer into the organ compartments and the uptake of nutrients in vitro mimics in vivo organ results. 

“It’s been really exciting to be able to use PET imaging to modify the device and produce even flow through all organ compartments.” 

The success of the body-on-chip so far shows potential even beyond drug development - to test aerosols, food and household products. It also holds the possibility of adding more compartments to represent other organs such as the stomach or skin, in states representative of both human health and disease. 

Currently, around 80,000 animals are used in the early stages of drug development in Europe each year, without subsequent clinical benefit. 

The body-on-chip device was developed through a National Centre for Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research (NC3Rs) and Unilever co-funded PhD Studentship award of £90,000. It has been supported and protected by Edinburgh Innovations, the University’s commercialisation service. 

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