Researchers at RTI International and at UNC-Chapel Hill have secured $3.8 million in federal funding to create a cell culture combining human cells and chip technology that will emulate a human lung.

The resulting 3-D in vitro (such as in a test tube) culture will be used to test how a human would respond to infections and drugs.

Funding is being provided by the Pentagon’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency.

RTI describes the culture as an “organ-on-a-chip,” a combination of human cells with an engineered fluidic chip.

The journal Nature in an article about such chips says advances in technology have enabled the development of a new class of fluid-handling chip systems engineered to use or analyse individual molecules.”  Called labs-on-chips, they enable “chemical sampling with high spatial resolution and the manipulation and measurement of individual molecules.”

RTI also is working on a similar model for the heart that would be used to test the toxicity of cardiac drugs,

Dr. Sonia Grego, the principal investigator for the project and a research scientist at RTI, said the technology “has great potential to provide rapid and accurate predictions of human response to respiratory infections and drugs.”

Grego sees the lung-on-a-chip would enable testing of human responses without having to rely on conventional cell culture assays and animal models.

The agency awarded the contract is tasked with finding solutions that would reduce the impact of chemical and biological threats to the United States.

“The technology is being developed as an in vitro platform of a human organ construct that can accurately predict human safety, efficacy and pharmacokinetics of candidate medical countermeasures (i.e., therapeutics and pharmaceuticals),” RTI said in its announcement.

“It is envisioned that such a platform could be used in the development of medical countermeasures by generating data to support in vivo testing and evaluation plans for investigational therapeutics. A long-term goal of this research is to reduce the overall burden of in vivo testing in the development and management of drugs and products for human use.”

Other research team members include Dr. Brian Gilmour at RTI and Drs. Scott Randell and Ralph Baric at UNC.