CAMBRIDGE, Mass., Sept. 24 (UPI) -- Testing asthma drugs and treatments is incredibly difficult, time-consuming and expensive. Asthma patients are using largely the same drugs that were being employed 50 years ago -- a testament to the inefficiency and ineffectiveness of the current state of asthma-related clinical research.
But a new development by a team of researchers at Harvard University may offer some hope for improvement. Part of the reason asthma research is so difficult is that animal test subjects don't offer a good stand-in for human airways and the conditions of a human asthmatic response.
But a new human airway muscle-on-a-chip, produced in Harvard labs, could help solve that problem by accurately replicating the way smooth muscle contracts in the human windpipe -- both under normal, healthy circumstances and during asthmatic episodes.
The chip is composed of a soft polymer lining mounted on a piece of underlying glass. Atop the polymer are microscale human airway muscles engineered in the lab. Using different proteins, researchers were able to condition the chip to mimic a typical allergic asthma response, as well as trigger the muscle to relax.
"Our chip offers a simple, reliable and direct way to measure human responses to an asthma trigger," explained Alexander Peyton Nesmith, lead author of the report published in the journal Lab on a Chip.
"Asthma is one of the top reasons for trips to the emergency room -- particularly for children, and a large segment of the asthmatic population doesn't respond to currently available treatments," said Dr. Don Ingber, director of Harvard's Wyss Institute. "The airway muscle-on-a-chip provides an important and exciting new tool for discovering new therapeutic agents."