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Story about “organ-on-a-chip” benefits could have used an independent voice


3 Star


Organ-On-Chip Could Revolutionize Drug Testing

Our Review Summary

Will new technology reduce the need for animal testing?

Will new technology reduce the need for animal testing?

This Newsweek story addresses an important topic with plenty of research and reporting. It tells how new chip-based technology that models human organs could potentially replace animal studies as a means of testing new drug candidates — possibly leading to cheaper and faster approvals. But while there’s a reasonable exploration of the evidence and some caution about the early state of the technology, the story feels unbalanced. The story only quotes researchers with a vested interest in the success of the technology, and its language describing potential benefits gets a little ahead of the evidence in places. Inclusion of an independent source with expertise in this area probably would have helped with many of these concerns. We make some other suggestions for improvement below in our review comments.


Why This Matters

Many non-profit organizations call for the end of animal experimentation, which is a controversial topic around the world. In addition, a common refrain from companies and researchers developing novel agents is the time and capital required to take a therapeutic from conceptualization to testing in non-animal then animal and finally human subjects. It is recognized that we need better experimental systems to identify new therapeutics and test their effectiveness and safety before trying them in human subjects. So it is welcome to see novel systems being designed that may do a better job. However exciting such new technology may be, this article presents an optimistic picture that is not fully supported by evidence. While we can hope that this will represent a better way to screen therapeutics for human studies, we can’t yet say that there is evidence that this is safer, less costly, or that it better identifies successful agents.


Does the story adequately discuss the costs of the intervention?


The Newsweek report generally addresses the costs to put a new drug on the market, and it states that “Incorporating the chips into drug testing could save millions of dollars and years of time on research.”

We’ll reward the story’s impulse to address cost with a Satisfactory rating, but we’d note that the issue is more complicated than readers may appreciate based on the coverage. The article starts by projecting benefits – cost of drug development and time to FDA approval. And only later does it imply that the new technology initially will add to the cost because it will be done along with the old technology (animal studies). Only if it is as good or better may it be a substitute. Then the question is whether it will indeed be cheaper. It may be cheaper if the chips are less expensive than animal studies or if they better identify agents that do or don’t work in humans. But costs are difficult to predict and the totals can add up quickly — for example, a vial of human lung cells costs over $700. This all seems very speculative at this point.

Does the story adequately quantify the benefits of the treatment/test/product/procedure?

Not Satisfactory

The article cites two experiments, in which the chip’s lung channel behaved like human lungs. In both cases the story says the results were “exactly” what would happen in human lungs under the same circumstances.

It’s probably difficult or impossible to provide any quantitative benefit regarding this technology at the current time. Nevertheless, we think the language of the story is not measured enough. Human organs work with millions of other cells and are influenced by countless other genetic and environmental factors that cannot be duplicated in these early experiments. Human systems are variable and dynamic, and doctors often don’t know ahead of time how patients would respond to a disease or treatment. So to suggest that the organs-on-a-chip behave exactly like human organs is not really supported at present.

Another example of the story’s enthusiasm: “The chips will also provide researchers with information on dosing at a much earlier stage in drug studies—particularly helpful because animals metabolize chemical substances at a different rate than humans.”  While these initial studies are encouraging, these chips haven’t yet been compared to existing tools used in drug development. Until this is done, a more cautious tone regarding benefits — “may,” “might,” and “could” rather than “will” — is warranted.

Does the story adequately explain/quantify the harms of the intervention?

Not Satisfactory

This is a tough one. The article does mention limitations, but doesn’t specifically state that conceivably this chip technology could have unforeseen problems — that it may say everything is ok when it isn’t and that could lead to harm. Given the early stage of this research, it would be prudent to include a caveat about potential for unknown or unpredictable downsides to the technology.

Does the story seem to grasp the quality of the evidence?


As noted above under “Benefits,” it’s not possible for these systems at present to replicate the dynamic processes of the human body, and the story doesn’t alert readers to that limitation. But we’ve already dinged the story for that concern, and the story does mention some other limitations, including that researchers can’t mimic consciousness or compression on a joint. It’s also clear from reading that this is still a technology that isn’t yet available or proven. The story does a reasonable job of describing what has been done so far and what needs to be done in the future. We’ll rate this Satisfactory.

Does the story commit disease-mongering?


This story addresses a new technology that can potentially improve the testing of new therapeutics. This is an important topic and it is presented in a reasonable way, without resorting to disease-mongering.

Does the story use independent sources and identify conflicts of interest?

Not Satisfactory

This was a two-source story, but both quoted researchers are leading organ-on-chip projects and so have a clear stake in this technology. One researcher created the organ-on-chip and is part of a team seeking to commercialize the technology. The other, though based at NIH, would seem to have a strong professional interest in seeing the technology succeed. The report needed an independent source, who could talk more thoroughly about the limitations of this technology and whether the expectations put forth by the article are realistic. For example, the story could have asked the head of research for a major drug company about their views on such new technologies, and whether they had any immediate plans to replace existing systems with this new one.

Does the story compare the new approach with existing alternatives?


The report describes laboratory testing on animal models, like mice and monkeys, and says chemicals are metabolized at a different rate in animals. We think that’s enough for a Satisfactory rating here.

Does the story establish the availability of the treatment/test/product/procedure?

Not Satisfactory

It is clear from the story that this technology is still under development, with a recent grant from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to create chips for all systems in the body. But we were concerned that the story allows a researcher who, according to this story is part of a team seeking to commercialize the technology, to speculate about FDA approval within two years and to say that it’s “only a matter of time” before these chips replace rodents. Those statements seem highly optimistic to us — another reason why the story should have consulted with an independent authority.

Does the story establish the true novelty of the approach?


The article mentions that the first “organoid” chip was built and tested in 2008 to mimic the mechanical function of human lungs. What’s new in this story is that this project won the “Design of the Year” award for 2015 from the Design Museum.

Does the story appear to rely solely or largely on a news release?


The Newsweek report does not rely on any news releases that we found online.

Total Score: 6 of 10 Satisfactory


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