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Pitt team gets $5.8M grant to develop liver device to enhance research

| Wednesday, Sept. 24, 2014, 11:55 p.m.

A device that mimics the human liver under development at the University of Pittsburgh could make it easier for researchers to test pharmaceuticals without animal trials, a leading medical scholar says.

A Pitt team led by D. Lansing Taylor won a $5.8 million, three-year grant from the National Institutes of Health to pursue the project, the university announced Wednesday. It's part of a federal program at 11 institutions, all collaborating on a unified system that can replicate brain, kidney and other critical organ functions for research use.

If it works, Taylor said, the endeavor could give researchers more reliable tools to explore how diseases and drug therapies work before they try treatments on people.

Long-established animal testing of new drugs often fails to reveal effects that can be toxic to humans, missing that mark in about 30 to 50 percent of cases, he said.

“The joke is that we've been able to cure cancer — in a mouse. The human physiology is distinct,” said Taylor, the Allegheny Foundation professor of computational and systems biology at the Pitt School of Medicine.

He said the effort could set a foundation for better general therapies and tailored, personalized critical care, such as treatments based on a patient's genetics.

Pitt scholars began the work two years ago and have developed a basic liver platform that fits in the palm of a hand. It's not clear how researchers will size their refined final model, which Taylor said will be linked over the next few years with kidney, gut and brain models in the works at other institutions.

The initial liver device combines human cells, sensors and other man-made materials to let researchers monitor how a real liver should handle different kinds of medical care.

NIH Director Francis S. Collins praised such devices in a statement, calling their development a “remarkable marriage of biology and engineering.”

Taylor said more than a half-dozen people at Pitt are working on the project. He predicted drug testing based on the models could emerge within a decade.

“We've already had great success demonstrating early capabilities,” he said. “This is not going to change medicine in the next one or two years, but developments over this next decade will dramatically change the way drugs are tested and human diseases are studied.”

Adam Smeltz is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5676 or asmeltz@tribweb.com.

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