Chip that mimics human cells could advance next medical breakthrough

Thursday - 9/22/2011, 10:35am EDT

Dr. Francis Collins, NIH director

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By Jack Moore
Federal News Radio

A group of federal agencies — the high-tech Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the National Institutes of Health and the Food and Drug Administration — are joining forces to create a new medical breakthrough straight from the pages of science fiction.

The agencies are working on a special chip to test the toxicity of drugs. The chips will be loaded with specific cell types to reflect human biology and developers hope they can use them to better determine a drug's safeness and effectiveness in humans — without the actual human.

The National Institutes of Health Director, Dr. Francis Collins, joined the Federal Drive with Tom Temin and Amy Morris to explain the partnership and the importance of this project.

Collins said the project aligns with a larger effort to free up bottlenecks in biomedical testing. NIH has proposed a National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences, which aims to bolster drug discoveries and breakthroughs.

"This is pretty ambitious," Collins acknowledged. "Some might even say audacious."

Still, Collins said NIH is in good company. As the Defense Department's research arm, DARPA helped create the Internet and GPS technologies and NIH, itself, is a national authority on biomedical research.

Their partnership represents the goal of "creating a new paradigm in toxicity testing."

The painstaking, years-long process of developing safe drugs often gets sidelined by the long testing phase. The chip project would cut down on that. But there are also other bottlenecks , Collins said highlighting the need for the larger NCATS effort.

NCATS has been put forward by Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius for approval but is still awaiting Congressional appropriations, Collins said.

"It would join the roster of the 27 institutes and centers" — such as the National Cancer Institutes — "as the newest kid on the block," he added.