Optical Method Enables Drug Toxicological Assessments in Early-Stage Tests

An Italian Institute of Technology (IIT)-coordinated project has received €3 million ($3.47 million) from the European Union to develop a biosensor based on a novel virtual mirror design. Researchers said the biosensor will be able to detect the toxicity of drugs and pesticides in the early stage of their tests. Specifically, the device, called VICE (Virtual Mirror CEll) will assess neurotoxicity and cardiotoxicity. In application, fluorescent spots will light up when cells react to substances. With a microscope, users will be able to view the corresponding images that register. The device and the technique that it supports will be noninvasive. The technique will be carried out in vitro, as are other current methodologies used for toxicological assessments. It will also be able to record the electrical signals from human neuronal and cardiac cells, evaluating acute — and, the researchers said, for the first time — chronic effects of the analyzed substances of human health. Drugs are often withdrawn from the market for neuro and cardio toxicity in the development or post-marketing phases. At the start of the process, the first assessment of such a drug aims to understand whether a certain substance can kill or degrade cell function when exposed to cells. Though a drug may clear this test, current techniques for toxicological evaluation have limitations. The results of current in vitro tests can only show the cells’ immediate reaction — which can leave doubts as to long-term side effects of substances that a drug may contain. The project is called TOX-Free. Its approach combines high accuracy in the detection of potential safety issues with the possibility of allowing cells remain interactive with the substance, in vitro, for weeks. Without compromising accuracy, the method enables side effects evaluation in the long term. In the technique, the cells’ interaction with the tested substance will be displayed by their electrical activity that fluorophores will reproduce in a separated microfluidic chamber. The chamber will absolve the function of the mirror-like component that will reproduce and record the reactions of the cells. A fluorescence microscope capable of recognizing the variations of the cardiac or neuronal electrical signals will enable the measurement of the movement of the fluorophores in the separated chamber. The developing researchers said they plan to target pharmacology laboratories and companies that plan to develop news drugs or pesticides, or test products, with the VICE biosensor. The project, called TOX-Free, will last three years. Partners from academia and industry will participate. IIT researcher Michele Dipalo will coordinate the initiative. IIT will develop the VICE biosensor. German and Austrian researchers will also contribute to the TOX-Free project.