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Emulate is creating organs-on-chips to change drug tests ()

From helping humans live longer and hacking our performance, to repairing the body and understanding the brain, WIRED Health will hear from the innovators transforming this critical sector. Read all of our WIRED Health coverage here.

Emulate is developing tiny "organs-on-chips" that can recreate the exact conditions within your body. This is paving the way for the development of drugs that can be personalised for individual patients.

The biotechnology startup manufactures USB-sized chips that are implanted with thousands of living cells and then subjected to the same flow of nutrients and chemicals as they would normally experience within the body. By doing this, Emulate can recreate the exact environment that any cell would encounter within the body. This is helping researchers understand how real human cells respond to medicines, food or cosmetics.

Until Emulate came on the scene, the best alternatives to testing drugs on humans were testing on cells in petri dishes. "But cells in ordinary plastic dishes don't give you the entire answer," Emulate co-founder and chief scientific officer Geraldine Hamilton told the audience at WIRED Health 2016. "They're missing the dynamic nature of the human body."

Testing on animals is also far from ideal. What if a drug found to be toxic in rats actually has no harmful effects in humans? Potential cures and helpful medicines are often thrown out at the development stages because they're harmful to animals. Currently eight per cent of drugs tested in animals make it through to clinical trials, but, Hamilton said, pharmaceutical companies could use Emulate's chips to pre-screen drugs on simulated human organs.

The organ chips have also enabled researchers to watch how drugs work within the human body. "If we can begin to understand the mechanisms by which [these medicines work], we can begin to design safer drugs," said Hamilton. "We can answer critical questions such as 'is a product effective?', 'is it safe?', 'is it worth developing?'"

These experiments are getting increasingly more complex as Emulate adds more cells of different types to organ chips. Hamilton is currently working with AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson to develop a chip that brings together every single type of cell that exists within the human liver. Even more ambitiously, the United States' Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) has asked Emulate to find a way to hook up ten different organ chips to simulate more complex interactions within the human body.

So far Emulate has recreated liver, lung, intestine, skin and brain cells. But in the future, the company wants to be able to recreate individual organs. By taking blood stem cells and re-programming their DNA, Emulate can furnish organ-chips with an accurate – albeit microscopic – replica of anyone's organs. "One day," Hamilton said, "we could be putting your cells on a chip."

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