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Can you believe the average length of time from target discovery to approval of a new drug currently averages about 14 years? That is WAY too long. Even more shocking is that the failure rate exceeds 95 percent, and the cost per successful drug surpasses $2 billion, after adjusting for all of the failures. The National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences was specifically established one year ago to apply innovative scientific approaches to the bottlenecks in the pipeline. An example of game-changing innovation is the NCATS collaboration with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to develop a biochip for testing drug safety. Devices like this and other tissue chips may someday reduce the amount of animal and human clinical trials necessary to determine if a drug works. That could be a huge step toward making drug development faster and cheaper—which is better for all of us.

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photo of a microchip

Lung-on-a-chip. Source: Wyss Institute at Harvard University

Tissue engineering is turning into a very powerful tool to learn about biology. We haven’t quite figured out how to grow full sized replacement organs, but we’re able to cultivate miniature versions on a chip. These organs-on-a-chip are poised to revolutionize and fast-track drug discovery and development.

Already a new lung-on-a-chip, developed by NIH-funded investigators at the Wyss Institute in Boston, MA, is a game changer. This nifty little thumb-sized device offers a new way to model human diseases, and a cheaper and faster way to screen potential drugs.

Currently, molecules that are promising drug candidates are tested in test tubes or Petri dishes, then in animals, and then, if they’re successful, in a series of human clinical trials. It’s a long, costly process that, on average, takes about 14 years from discovery to clinic with a price tag of up to $2 billion.


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