Are there alternatives to using research organisms for these studies?
Scientists alternatively use computer models and lab-on-a-chip systems for health research. Computers can serve as virtual laboratories and enable scientists to perform experiments that are difficult, time consuming, or expensive to do in actual labs. Computer simulations track biological processes in research organisms, allowing researchers to computationally test, for example, the possible effects of various drugs on those processes. Then, they can study just the most promising drugs in living organisms.
Like more traditional animal models, no single computer model can accurately predict an outcome. Therefore, researchers often ask the same questions using different models. When multiple models yield similar results, scientists have more confidence in the predictions.
Another option over using research organisms is putting living human tissues and cells onto small see-through chips. These “tissue chips” or “organs on chips” copy the structure and activity of organs in the human body. Scientists, including researchers at the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences, have made tissue chips for the lungs, heart, kidneys, skin, and liver, among others. They can also connect these chips together to test a treatment’s effects on several organs at the same time. They hope that using organs on chips will help speed up testing of potential new drugs for a variety of diseases.
What are the limits of research organisms and other model systems?
Although research organisms have many similarities to people, they also have major differences. For example, drugs that are safe in animals aren’t always safe in people. That’s why researchers try to test their findings in a variety of research organisms and must ultimately confirm the results by looking at humans.
Similarly, while computer models are helpful, research organisms are still needed to confirm their predictions.