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UCI Center for Medical Humanities Hosts “Alternatives to Animal Testing,” Featuring Dr. Donald Ingber

The UCI Center for Medical Humanities held “Alternatives to Animal Testing,” a discussion featuring Donald Ingber, founding director of the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University, on Nov. 11. 

The discussion was the first in the webinar series from the Shri Parshvanath Presidential Chair in Jain Studies’ Inaugural Lecture in Ethical Innovations.

Brianne Donaldson, presidential chair in Jain Studies at UCI, began the event with an introduction to Jainism – a “religious tradition and philosophical system rooted in India whose texts and practices are robustly focused on the ethics of life and death.”

“This powerful exhortation not to harm is expressed in the lives of Jain monks and nuns who seek to avoid violence to all beings in as many ways as humanly possible … However, the vast majority of Jains in the world are not monks and nuns, but strive to live out this commitment to nonviolence in the context of their work, their families and their communities,” Donaldson said.

According to Donaldson, Jains throughout history have “gravitated towards occupations that aimed to inflict less harm” and subsequently hold a high representation in medical and allied fields.

The lecture focused on these ethical boundaries in conversation with medicine-engineering and a philosophy of nonviolence. Donaldson also noted a similar moral struggle experienced by her bioethics students at UCI.

“Rather than silence this difficulty, I believe that we can do better at UCI, as one of the preeminent research institutions in the world, to bring this issue to the light of ethical reflection, in hopes that we can join with others seeking innovative solutions that promote a thriving community of both humans and other living beings whenever possible,” Donaldson said.

Dr. Ingber and his team have been pursuing bioengineering as a method to model human organs and functional systems for the last 15 years.

“We’ve uncovered so much about how nature builds, controls and manufactures from the nanoscale up that we feel that we’re at a point where we could leverage biological principles to develop new engineering innovations. That’s what we call biologically inspired,” Ingber said.

Ingber described the drug development model as being “broken” because cell culture dishes, which are containers that support the growth of cultured cells, and animal studies required by regulatory agencies take years to complete and do not predict clinical responses nor accurately model human bodies. 

“The industry currently spends probably over three billion dollars a year to go from a discovery at the lab bench to an approved drug … as a result, there’s been a search … for better models that could actually mimic human organ-level function,” Ingber said.

Human Organs-on-Chips, Ingber’s platform at the Wyss Institute, was made to “engineer microchips containing living human cells that reconstitute organ-level functions … to accelerate drug development, to replace animal testing and advanced personalized medicine.”

With the help of chemist George Whiteside, the institute was able to utilize microengineering with soft lithography to construct the minimal functional unit for the human lung in 2010, the “human lung-on-a-chip.”

“This is what has been used to miniaturize all sorts of instrumentation, particularly for the diagnostics industry. To me, this is really an engineered microvascular network,” Ingber said.

The team was able to use the human lung-alveolus-chip to create human disease models and toxicity models to predict drug efficacy and toxicity.

As the team transitioned from experimental models to clinical mimicry, they were able to develop and imitate a lung small airway, the human chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), responses, effects of cigarette smoke on lungs, orthotopic lung cancer, the human intestine and the development of the mucus bilayer in the human colon. 

“But the ultimate goal of all of this is to recapitulate human pathophysiology and predict human responses to drugs using clinically relevant dose measures,” Ingber said.

In efforts to use the organ chips for personalized medicine, Ingber and his team studied patients with rare genetic disorders such as Shwachman-Diamond syndrome.

“This idea of being able to do potentially model responses for rare genetic disorders might help advance clinical trials because it’s very hard to get patients at one site for these types of trials,” Ingber said. 

They were able to link multiple chips into functional systems, modeling human drug pharmacokinetics and pharmacodynamics to design more efficient processes for clinical trials. 

“I suggested that … we might be able to develop what we call an integrated human body on chips by linking fluid flow from one vascular channel to the next,” Ingber said.

According to Ingber,  “organ chips are ready to be integrated into the drug development pipeline,” and the functionality of the chips in personalized clinical trials for medicine now nullifies the purpose of animal validation studies. 

“I hope to show you a baby step along the way. But the goal, certainly, is to progressively replace animal testing in medicine and other areas,” Ingber said.

The Center for Medical Humanities will be hosting the second lecture in the series featuring Dr. Catherine Airman during spring quarter 2021.

Rachel Vu is a Campus News Intern for the 2020 Fall Quarter. She can be reached at rnvu@uci.edu.