University of Melbourne’s ‘sci-fi’ project set to save pharmaceutical industry millions

Researchers from the University of Melbourne have launched a groundbreaking project tipped to revolutionise how drugs are tested.

The project involves a spheroid—a “science fiction-like biological machine” that is the width of a few human hairs and made up of 25,000 human lung cells.

Using this spheroid, the University of Melbourne’s bioengineer Professor Peter Lee—together with his research partners Professor Alastair Stewart and Associate Professor Glen Westall—hopes to “create a more realistic environment that can be used for drug testing”.

If successful, the research could help pharmaceutical companies save millions of dollars a year.

What is a spheroid?

The spheroid being developed by the team acts as a “tissue-on-chip” device. This device is made up of human cells that bind together to create a microtissue set in a microfluidic biochip.  

“[This is] instead of testing on single cells, which we used to do in a two-dimensional environment. This one is more three-dimensional, so it is more of a representative of the physiological environments that cells are subjected to,” explains Professor Lee.

The microtissue not only better mimics the human body but can also be subjected to physical forces in the microfluidic biochip, meaning it is more realistic.

According to Professor Lee, “you can squeeze it, pull it, [and] you can induce mechanical forces into it.”

“The mechanics really bring a heightened reality to the whole physiological environment,” he adds.

Implications for drug testing

Most drug testing today is performed on two-dimensional environments or on animals, but as Professor Lee points out, “We are not plastic, neither are we small animals”.

Given these limitations, many drugs fail when it comes to clinical trials. A 2014 study in Nature Biotechnology found only 32 per cent of drugs are likely to reach Phase 3 and of these, only one in 10 will make it to the market.

For each drug that fails, a pharmaceutical company can lose between A$10 million and A$100 million, often slashing their share market value.

By developing a more realistic testing ground, which takes into account biomechanical forces, the Melbourne researchers are confident they can improve the success rates of drug trials.

“Mechanical testing is a lot more exciting because it is not just testing the spheroids to give us its mechanical characteristics. Now the characteristic has clinical implications,” says Professor Lee. “You are able to tell whether the drug is effective on that cell by measuring the mechanical properties of spheroids when exposed to different drugs.”

Frontier of personalised medicine

Professor Lee’s research has wider applications to the field of personalised medicine, opening up the possibility of creating a “personalised tissue-on-chip”.

As Professor Lee explains, “some medicines work for some people and some don’t”.

“If you go down the route of personalised medicine, you are actually having patient cells that you harvest and then put into an external environment that is quite similar to their body.”

In this way, drugs can be tested before administration, reducing the likelihood of failure and other complications.

While Professor Lee admits “there is a long way to go”, he is excited about the long-term prospects of the research.

“We are certainly pushing very hard for personalised medicine. I think that’s where the real gem is.”