Engineers receive grant for ‘artificial liver’ that could help find more effective drugs

A research team led by U of T Engineering Professor Craig Simmons (MIE, IBBME) received $300,000 this week to create a 3D model of the human liver. Funded by Ontario Centres of Excellence and pharmaceutical consortium CQDM, the project could help determine whether or not new drug molecules are safe for use in humans.

Drug developers rely on lab tests and preclinical trials to determine how a potential drug molecule might react when processed by the liver or other organs in the human body. One form of testing is to try the drug on lab-grown cells, but an individual cell can behave very differently to one in its natural environment that is surrounded by blood vessels and other components of tissue.

Simmons, along with Professor Michael Sefton (ChemE, IBBME) and other team members, have developed a way to grow small amounts of three-dimensional liver tissue in the lab. The team is now incorporating these bits of tissue into a microfluidic platform that simulates the flow of blood through the liver. In this way, they could simultaneously test dozens of chemical compounds to determine what their effect on the liver might be. The system will allow them to screen out drugs with potential negative effects at a very early stage of the drug development process.

“Our improved liver model will identify and eliminate toxic and ineffective drugs earlier in the drug discovery process,” said  Simmons. As a result, the liver model will reduce the time, cost and reliance on animal testing for drug development.

Simmons said the grant will also help accelerate the translation of the technology to end users such as pharmaceutical companies, biotech firms and biology researchers. “By the end of this project, we expect to deliver a new best-in-class liver model that is designed to be immediately implemented and to enable faster, less expensive, and more effective drug discovery and development,” he said.

In total, five Canadian-led research projects will share a total of $1.5 million spread over two years. The announcement was made on June 16 at the 2015 BIO International Convention in Philadelphia by officials from the Ontario Centres of Excellence and CQDM, a consortium that represents many of Canada’s major pharmaceutical companies.

“This innovative funding collaboration between CQDM and Ontario Centres of Excellence will help accelerate drug development through biopharmaceutical research and development in Ontario and Quebec,” said Reza Moridi, Ontario Minister of Research and Innovation. “The important work of the chosen project teams will help to improve the everyday lives for people in both provinces and beyond, by generating positive health and economic outcomes.”