UK researchers have started developing a 'lung in a test tube', that could aid research into respiratory diseases such as asthma and allergy and reduce the need for animal testing.
The artificial airway is made using tissue engineering, with layers of the epithelial cells that make up the airway tissue grown inside a microfluidic device.
The device is modified to allow lung cell growth by coating the inner surface with a membrane that will allow access to both sides (the 'air' and 'blood' surfaces) of the cells.
"The device will allow researchers to fully understand how lung function is affected by air particles and allergens and to test their effects without animal testing," said the researchers, from the University of Southampton.
In the UK, respiratory diseases account for 25 per cent of all medical admissions to hospital, and the majority are due to bronchial asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
These diseases are widespread, may be fatal or have severe health consequences. Unlike other disease areas such as cardiovascular where there have been significant new therapeutic treatments, COPD and asthma have not benefited from any recent major breakthroughs, according to Davies.
The team is working with the National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research (NC3Rs) on the project. By making a synthetic model of the lung that is much closer to the tissue encountered in the body, the hope is that many experiments that currently require the use of laboratory animals will become unnecessary.
The principal investigator on the project is Donna Davies, professor of respiratory, cell and molecular biology working in the university's Infection, Inflammation and Repair unit. She is working with Professor Hywel Morgan of the School of Electronics and Computer Science to construct the artificial airways.
"This new model will allow us to measure the transport of materials and the challenges the airways are presented with," said Prof Morgan.
Davies' research group is particularly active in exploring the reasons for the dramatic increase in asthma over the last 30 years, which is thought to stem from changes in the environment acting on a susceptible genotype both in respect of disease induction and worsening of established disease.
She is a also a founder of UK biotechnology company Synairgen, which operates a biobank of blood, sputum, biopsies, fibroblast and epithelial cells from asthmatic and COPD patients, and is also developing an inhaled formulation of interferon beta for asthma and COPD which has reached clinical trials.
Last year, researchers from the University of Michigan in the US led by Shuichi Takayama unveiled a similar research effort - dubbed the 'lung on a chip' - that is designed to allow lung epithelial cells to grow in an environment more similar to the body.
Their research, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that the chip would allow lung cells to behave in ways not seen petri dishes, such as forming tissue connections and adopting 'normal' protein secretion patterns.