A new device that simulates the human heart will spare some animals from medical drug testing.

The new heart-on-a-chip developed by researchers at UC Berkeley, hosts live, beating heart cells and is a major advancement for medical science. Professor Kevin Healy says his device is a more efficient, accurate and less expensive method for testing cardiac drugs.

Typically, human subjects are too weak to undergo clinical trials, so animals have been substituted. But, this practice is also known to cause high failure rates in predicting human reactions.

“Ultimately, these chips could replace the use of animals to screen drugs for safety and efficacy,” said Healy. It also could cut the cost of bringing a drug to market.

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“It takes about $5 billion on average to develop a drug, and 60 percent of that figure comes from upfront costs in the research and development phase. Using a well-designed model of a human organ could significantly cut the cost and time of bringing a new drug to market.”

In a study published Monday by the journal Scientific Reports, researchers explain how the inch-long silicone device provides a safe testing ground for a variety of compounds.

Pulsating cardiac muscle cells made from adult stem cells are placed in the device, which copies the 3D structure of how cells grow in the heart.  Within 24 hours after the heart cells were loaded into the chamber, they began beating on their own at a normal rate. The engineered tissue remained functional for several weeks.

Healy hopes this process will be used to test various drugs and eliminate animal subjects all together in the future.

See the pulsating heart-on-a-chip in action in this short clip below:

(Learn more at UC Berkeley) – Photo courtesy of UC Berkeley

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