Before drugs are tested on humans, they first go through pre-clinical tests on animals. Because humans and animals don't have identical gastrointestinal tracts, however, the way in which the drugs are absorbed by the body often differs between the two. A scientist from the UK's University of Huddersfield hopes to address that discrepancy, with his "gut simulator."

Ordinarily, the fashion in which drugs are taken up by the gastrointestinal tract is studied mainly during the human trials – this increases the cost of the study, which gets passed along to consumers or health care providers in the purchase price. Instead, Dr. Hamid Merchant hopes that his device could be used to provide the same information much more quickly and cost-effectively.

The simulator incorporates a chamber containing a solvent medium, along with a pH probe and a control unit. By monitoring the changes that occur in the pH of the solvent, it's possible to assess how the drug would be absorbed by the body, subject to the different levels of acidity and alkalinity that occur within the gastrointestinal tract. These levels can be tweaked by the user, to mimic the way in which they vary from person to person.

A schematic diagram of the gut simulator

A prototype of the system has reportedly already been used by drug companies to test new orally-administered medications, and a second setup is in the works. The university has applied for a patent on the technology, and claims that commercial partners are already expressing an interest in commercializing it.

"By minimizing human trials we would reduce the cost of development, which is then charged to patients when the drug comes to the market – if the development costs are lower, then we can make new drugs more affordable," said Dr. Merchant.

Not surprisingly, this isn't the first the first attempt at developing a gut simulator for use in the testing of drugs. A team at Harvard University has created a gut-on-a-chip, while the ATHENA organ project is aiming at producing a desktop toxicity testing platform that emulates the functions of the heart, liver, kidney and lungs.

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