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Project ATHENA creates surrogate human organ systems
by Lloyd Dunlap  |  Email the author


LOS ALAMOS, New Mexico—The development of miniature surrogate human organs, coupled with highly sensitive mass spectrometry technologies, could one day revolutionize the way new drugs and toxic agents are studied, said a statement from Los Alamos National Laboratory, bridging the gap between cellular and animal work and human studies.
“By developing this ‘homo minutus,’ we are stepping beyond the need for animal or Petri dish testing: There are huge benefits in developing drug and toxicity analysis systems that can mimic the response of actual human organs,” said Rashi Iyer, a senior scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory.
The ATHENA—the Advanced Tissue-engineered Human Ectypal Network Analyzer— project team is nearing the full integration of four human organ constructs—liver, heart, lung and kidney. Each organ component is about the size of a smartphone screen, and the whole ATHENA “body” of interconnected organs will fit neatly on a desk.
In the work on the heart, a web-like scaffold structure was built in the shape of the ventricle and then populated with a web of cells. When Harvard post-doc Luke MacQueen was recruited to work on the project, he jumped at the chance and was rewarded, he says, by one of those “Eureka moments” when the heart began contracting and pumping a blood surrogate just like a human ventricle.
With the simulated liver engaged in metabolism used for drug testing and tox studies it will now be possible to determine the effects of liver output on the heart. Achieving optimal integration of the four organs is a milestone that is within reach.
A new video available on the Los Alamos National Laboratory YouTube channel updates the ATHENA project as it begins to integrate the various organ systems into a single system. (
Some 40 percent of pharmaceuticals fail their clinical trials and there are thousands of chemicals whose effects on humans are simply unknown. Providing a realistic, cost-effective and rapid screening system such as ATHENA with high-throughput capabilities could provide major benefits to the medical field, screening more accurately and offering a greater chance of clinical trial success, the Los Alamos team believes.
ATHENA is funded by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) and is a collaboration of Los Alamos National Laboratory, Harvard University, Vanderbilt University, and Charité Universitätsmedizin, Berlin, Germany.
Los Alamos National Laboratory, a multidisciplinary research institution engaged in strategic science on behalf of national security, is operated by Los Alamos National Security, LLC, a team composed of Bechtel National, the University of California, The Babcock & Wilcox Company, and URS for the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration.
Los Alamos enhances national security by ensuring the safety and reliability of the U.S. nuclear stockpile, developing technologies to reduce threats from weapons of mass destruction, and solving problems related to energy, environment, infrastructure, health and global security concerns.
Code: E06151501



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