A magazine for friends of the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University.

State-of-the-Art Test Subjects

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Brown researchers are creating lab-grown microtissues as an alternative to animal testing.

When you’re addressing the world’s problems, sometimes you don’t have to look far for answers. Sometimes the potential solution is right in your backyard.

About a decade ago, Kim Boekelheide, MD, PhD, a professor of medical science in the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, was wrapping up a three-year stint on a National Academy of Sciences committee that examined chemical safety testing methods. An expert in toxicology testing, he says “animal testing had been what I had done my entire life.” But now he saw the flaws in this traditional methodology.

“We need to move away from animals into an in vitro testing approach to achieve the goal of high throughput toxicity testing for safety assessment,” which would allow millions of compounds to be tested quickly, Boekelheide says. “I became a proselytizer: ‘we’ve got to do this.’” He returned to campus determined to find a collaborator in this new venture.

Meanwhile Jason Weiss, the vice chair of the board of directors for the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), also had concerns about animal testing, and wanted to support research to find alternatives. Andrew Rowan, chief scientific officer for the HSUS, who knew Boekelheide, told Weiss to look no further than the alma mater of his wife, Donna McGraw Weiss ’89.

And that’s how Boekelheide and the Weisses wound up on the doorstep of Jeffrey Morgan, PhD, a professor of medical science in the Department of Molecular Pharmacology, Physiology, and Biotechnology and a professor of engineering. By then, Morgan had for years been perfecting new, better ways to conduct tests in vitro—literally, “in glass,” like petri dishes.

Morgan shares Boekelheide’s concerns about animal testing: it’s very slow, it’s extremely expensive, and it’s not particularly reliable—humans aren’t 150-pound rats. But petri dishes are no substitute for Homo sapiens, either.

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