U.S. to develop chip that tests if a drug is toxic

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. government researchers plan to design a chip that can check whether new drugs are toxic before they are tested in people, potentially speeding up the development of new therapies.

The chip would lump together human cells from the liver, heart, muscles and other organs, then diffuse a drug through them. Multiple readouts would then show how different proteins, genes and other compounds in the cells react to the medicine.

"If things are going to fail, you want them to fail early," Dr. Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), told Reuters on Friday. "Now you'll be able to find out much quicker if something isn't going to work."

Collins said a drug's toxicity is one of the most common reasons why promising compounds fail. But animal tests -- the usual method of checking a drug before trying it on humans -- can be misleading.

He said about half of drugs that work in animals may turn out to be toxic for people. And some drugs may in fact work in people even if they fail in animals, meaning potentially important medicines could be rejected.

The project aims to bring together new knowledge from engineering, biology and toxicology.

The cells in the chip will be grouped next to each other so they can interact, much as they would in a human body. The chip will be tested with drugs that are known to be safe, and those that are toxic, to look at how the readouts compare.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the NIH will each spend up to $70 million over five years on their own separate programs to develop the chip.

They will also work with the Food and Drug Administration, the U.S. drugs regulator, which could potentially use the chip to test drugs during the approval process.

It takes an average of 15 years and more than $1 billion to get approval to sell a drug in the United States, according to the drug industry group PhRMA.

"We know the development pipeline has bottlenecks in it, and everyone would benefit from fixing them," Collins said.

(Reporting by Anna Yukhananov; editing by Tim Dobbyn)

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