BEVERLY HILLS, Calif.—Hurel Corp. announced recently that the Schering-Plough Research Institute (SPRI) joined Johnson & Johnson Pharmaceutical Research & Development LLC, in the joint scientific collaboration (JSC) of pharmaceutical companies that Hurel has convened to develop "human-on-a-chip" technology.
Rob Freedman, CEO of Hurel, says SPRI and J&J bring scientific and financial resources to the JSC and demonstrate the industry's commitment and openness to technology that should eventually reduce the need for animal testing. "The idea is to have scientists from multiple sources working together so that we can triangulate how best to serve the needs of scientists working in the pharmaceutical industry by getting multiple points of view."
The three companies will discuss scientific and technical issues of developing platform technology for placing cell-based assays on biochips. The prototype device, says Freedman, is fabricated in silicon housed in acrylic plastic. To approximate in vivo conditions, microfluidics powers compounds and other materials through compartments containing living cells.
Hurel's first commercial application should launch in 2007, says Freedman, and will use human liver cells to look at drug metabolism and pharmacokinetics; subsequent applications will be introduced gradually, with predictive toxicology involving two tissues, including liver, as a likely second target.
While Hurel will initially offer only contract services, JSC members will enjoy the option of using Hurel devices in their own labs. "We offer direct economic incentives for our partners to participate, but the real benefit, big benefit, is the competitive advantage they gain by getting a powerful, truly disruptive technology a substantial amount of time before their competitors do," says Freeman. Hurel seeks other companies to join the JSC but expects to accommodate only another one or two within the group.
In a prepared statement, Catherine D. Strader, Ph.D., executive vice president of discovery research at SPRI, says "Schering-Plough is deeply committed to seeking out and developing new technologies that will enable pharmaceutical scientists to rely less on animal testing as they search for and create new medicines."
At about one square inch, Hurel's devices are small, but Freedman expects them to have a sizeable effect on drug discovery. "It has benefits of the 'smaller, faster, cheaper' variety, but the real benefits are improved predictive information of improved relevance to the human organism. The question becomes the pathway of trial and adoption that the technology goes through as it is tried and accepted," he says.
Speaking generally about human-on-a-chip devices, Alan Louie, research director at Health Industry Insights, says he foresees targeted applications for the technology. "It's a fairly novel technology and has an interesting approach. It's just a question of finding the right application," he says. Using liver cells for toxicity studies has potential as a successful niche, though Louie cautions that the technology faces challenges in stabilizing the devices for shipping, distribution, and storage when they cannot be used immediately.