CHICAGO — New drug development starts in a lab, then moves to animal and ultimately human models. Now scientists thinking outside the box want to add an extra safety step — inside a box designed to mimic the human organ system.

The box is not much bigger than a shoe box and is thought of as a tiny human body.

Hannes Campo, PhD is a researcher with Northwestern Medicine.

“This is the closest thing we can do to recreate the human body outside of the human body,” Campo said.

Called the “lattice,” Campo and other Northwestern Medicine researchers developed the system to test experimental drugs on a variety of organs after animal studies and ahead of human clinical trials.

Julie Kim, PhD also worked on the project.

“Many of the drugs tested in animals that have succeeded move onto clinical phase one trials to look at toxicity,” she said. “But an animal is an animal and what we need is representation of human tissues.” 

Unlike a traditional petri dish that allows scientists to experiment with one cell type, the new device can be filled with eight human organ tissue samples, all linked by a special fluid that simulates blood, just like inside the body.

“Kind of like if you think of the blood system, how it delivers nutrients to each of the organs and takes away waste, that is the concept we are trying to build here,” Kim said.

The fluid flows between the chambers and can carry a new medication along the way. The research team then tracks how the different organ samples respond. 

“If you know that the liver metabolizes a drug, you want to know if those metabolites are safe then we would put a liver in this chip along with some of the other tissues,” Kim said.

Kim and her colleagues also use the device, which can run for up to 28 days, to study disease risk factors. On the day WGN visited, they loaded lattice with fat cells to see how they might impact the growth of endometrial cancer. 

“Cancer takes a long time to develop, but if we were to catch some of those early events or early mutations, then we can start studying all the early changes that occur,” she said. “We’re excited. We’re hoping other research labs are able to adopt it and use it and find new discoveries.”

The researchers also use the device to look at how different drugs behave in men and women, a critical component of safety testing as some drugs are toxic in one sex and not the other.

Sign up for our Medical Watch newsletter. This daily update includes important information from WGN’s Dina Bair and the Med Watch team including the latest updates from health organizations, in-depth reporting on advancements in medical technology and treatments as well as personal features related to people in the medical field. Sign up here.