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Drug candidates that seem promising in preliminary laboratory tests often fail once they are tested for toxicity in animals–a waste of time and money for a pharmaceutical company. What’s more, chemical and cosmetics companies are increasingly looking for cheap and efficient ways to test potential products for toxicity problems without resorting to animal testing. Now, researchers have designed a biochip that could screen out compounds with toxicity problems much earlier in the drug-development process. It could also be useful for rapidly screening chemicals and cosmetics for potential toxicity.

Called the DataChip (for data analysis toxicology assay chip), it “allows for a very quick determination of whether a compound is likely to be toxic,” says Jonathan Dordick, a biochemical engineer at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), in Troy, NY, and cofounder of Solidus Biosciences, a startup that is commercializing the technology. The chip holds a miniature array of more than a thousand 3-D cell cultures, each 20 nanoliters in size, on a glass microscope slide. Each cell culture is able to test the toxicity of a different chemical. The miniaturization allows compounds to be tested in a high-throughput manner, which is important in the early stages of drug discovery, when thousands of drug candidates need to be screened.

Dordick and Douglas Clark, a chemical engineer at the University of California, Berkeley, and cofounder of Solidus Biosciences, describe the DataChip in the December 26 online early edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Traditional toxicity testing involves using animals or tissue samples, methods that are time consuming and expensive. Also, European cosmetics companies will be restricted from animal testing starting in 2009, making the need for new in vitro methods even more important.

Several groups are working on liver models for predicting drug toxicity since many compounds are metabolized in the liver. (See “Liver Models Go to Market.”) Even if the drugs themselves aren’t toxic, their metabolites might be. In 2005, the RPI and Berkeley researchers reported developing what the group calls the MetaChip, a chip that mimics how compounds are metabolized by the liver. By combining the two biochips, the researchers say, it could now be possible to accurately predict the toxicity of chemicals and drug candidates without the use of animals.

In the MetaChip, liver enzymes are placed on individual spots on a slide, and the test compounds are placed on those spots to be metabolized by the enzymes. When the MetaChip and the DataChip are sandwiched together, the DataChip can analyze the metabolites produced by the MetaChip and determine whether they are toxic. “The main innovation is coupling a toxicity assay with the metabolism–all done in a high-throughput screen,” says Salman Khetani, a postdoc at MIT and cofounder of Hepregen, a company that’s also developing liver models.

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Credit: Moo-Yeal Lee/Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Tagged: Biomedicine, drugs, toxicity

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