What Does the Future Hold for Human Relevant Research Models?

Hand Chip

Dr. Donald Ingber, Founding Director of the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University, and mentor of former IFER fellowship recipient Bryan Hassell, was recently interviewed in Nature Reviews Materials about his thoughts on the use of organs-on-chips, organoids and animal models in science.  Here are some highlights of that insightful interview.

Dr. Ingber suspects that researchers still rely on animal models because they are widely available and because the scientific community is familiar with these models. However, he cautioned that animal models may not be working for researchers the way they think they are.

“The question is whether we are fooling ourselves, because we convince ourselves that what we see [in animal models] is what we thought it should be,” he noted. “Indeed, many drugs first go through animal models before reaching clinical trials, and the large majority of those drugs fail in the clinic.”

He believes that human relevant models such as organs-on-chips and organoids “are as good or even better than animal models” and that requirements from publishers, funding agencies and regulatory agencies to use animals in high numbers should be challenged.

“Asking for animal models is often a reflex, because this is how it’s been done for many years, even in cases in which animal models are known to not replicate human physiology or pathophysiology,” he said. “I think if reviewers were aware that there are alternative models out there, they might demand validation in a human-relevant model rather than in an animal model.”

Dr. Ingber recognizes that there are some hurdles to more widespread use of alternatives like organs-on-chips. One of the most common is that researchers often prefer using models that they were trained to use and are comfortable with. Hence, they may be reluctant to learn how to use new technologies. Dr. Ingber pointed out that steps are being taken to make these alternative models more accessible, as they can be purchased from commercial suppliers and do not require researchers to have an expertise in engineering.

What does Dr. Ingber see in the future for models such as organs-on-chips?  

“We need to get the most information out of these systems in real time,” he said. Toward that goal, Dr. Ingber would like the chips to contain more sensors and provide more read-outs of functionality at the genetic, biochemical and cellular levels. He would also like researchers to explore using different materials when constructing the chips, in addition to developing ways to mass produce the devices in an efficient and inexpensive way for commercialization.

Dr. Ingber is also excited about a recent proposal to start a new institute at the National Institutes of Health that focuses on in vitro models.

“This should help to achieve a critical mass of researchers using this technology, who will then act as reviewers of grants and papers,” he said. “Engaging more researchers may help to push the technology over the top, such that people start looking beyond animal models.”

We look forward to the more widespread use of these and other humane and human-relevant alternatives that have the potential to reduce, and even replace, animal use in many areas of science. We will continue to keep you posted on developments in this area.


Horejs, C. “Organ chips, organoids and the animal testing conundrum,” Nature Reviews Materials, April 2021.