Lab-made mini human to screen drugs, toxins

Work begins on Athena, a $19 million project that seeks to create artificial organs that work in concert inside a human-like test dummy that could reduce reliance on animal testing.

ATHENA, the Advanced Tissue-engineered Human Ectypal Network Analyzer.
There are huge benefits in developing drug and toxicity analysis systems that can mimic the response of actual human organs. Los Alamos National Laboratory

Something called the Advanced Tissue-engineered Human Ectypal Network Analyzer project might sound like a secret weapon being developed by S.H.I.E.L.D. In fact, it's a project being developed here in the real would that could change the way new drugs and toxic agents are screened.

Led by researchers at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, the Athena project aims to create mini versions of four artificial organs -- liver, lung, heart, and kidney -- that can be connected inside an artificial torso. Each organ will be about the size of a smartphone screen, according to LANL, and be connected by tubing filled with artificial blood. All together, the Athena "body" should be small enough to sit on a desk.

"By developing this 'homo minutus,' we are stepping beyond the need for animal or Petri dish testing: There are huge benefits in developing drug and toxicity analysis systems that can mimic the response of actual human organs," Rashi Iyer, a senior scientist at LANL leading the Athena organ project, said in a statement.

The artificial mini human will be built over the five-year course of the project, which has a budget of $19 million and is supported by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, a subdivision of the Department of Defense (not quite S.H.I.E.L.D., but it's the best we got).

"The ultimate goal is to build a lung that breathes, a heart that pumps, a liver that metabolizes, and a kidney that excretes -- all connected by a tubing infrastructure much akin to the way blood vessels connect our organs," Iyer added. "While some skeptics might believe that this is a utopian dream... the team is confident that this is indeed achievable."

The team she mentions consists of scientists working at universities in the US and Germany to create the various components of Athena.

The lungs and kidneys are being developed at LANL by Iyer; the heart is begin worked on at Harvard by Professor Kevin Kit Parker; and the liver is being developed at the Charite Universitätsmedizin in Berlin by Katrin Zeilinger, head of the Bioreactor Group, and colleagues. Researchers at the University of California San Francisco and Vanderbilt are working on the kidneys.

Co-principal investigator John Wikswo at Vanderbilt University, who is building the hardware that will run the Athena system, will present information about the development of the ATHENA system at the Society of Toxicology meeting this week in Phoenix.

"We spent a bit of time analyzing the challenges in building miniature human organ constructs, and we believe we've figured out how to capture the key features we need," Wikswo said in a statement. "There are a lot of trade-offs, and we're not trying to build an exact replica of a human liver, but an in vitro model that allows us to measure human liver responses to drugs and toxins that cannot be replicated by a layer of cells growing on plastic."

Vanderbilt is also collaborating with the LANL to create an artificial blood that will flow through the four mechanical organs.

While the researchers say that Athena, dubbed "homo minutus," will be small enough to fit on your desk, I'm not so sure I'd want a breathing, heart-beating, liver-and-kidney-squishing robot staring at me while I worked. How about you?