Researchers are continuously finding new ways to test pharmaceuticals, and one group might be close to developing a miniature, artificial human body. Senior scientist Rashi Iyer from Los Alamos National Laboratory and a team of researchers is close to finishing development on ATHENA, or the Advanced Tissue-engineered Human Ectypal Network Analyzer, which acts as a small, replicated body for toxicity tests. The five-year, $19 million effort wants to provide an alternative to animal drug tests by using surrogate organs and mass spectrometry technologies to screen how new drugs could affect the human body.

ATHENA is currently made of a synthetic liver, heart, lung, and kidney, all of which are about the size of a smartphone screen and work like human organs. Eventually the team wants to expand from only organs to all the vessels and tissues surrounding them, making ATHENA work more like an actual body. "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 says.

Each organ is the size of a smartphone screen

Scientists have been trying to mimic chemical reactions and even organ processes outside the body for some time, using lab-on-a-chip devices designed to mimic individual organs. ATHENA essentially takes those scaled-down processes and, rather than placing them on a chip, puts them into synthetic organs. ATHENA's connected organs could also let researchers not only test drugs on one specific organ, but also see how the drug could affect other organs simultaneously — something that singular devices like chips currently cannot do. The project has a long way to go before it could totally replace animals in drug tests, but it does show promise as a future alternative.