The innovative “lung-on-a-chip” regenerative medicine technology in Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center has received $24 million in federal grant funding.

The grant, announced Tuesday by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, targets using the technology as “a model to develop chemical injury treatments.”

Federal health officials want to determine whether organ-on-a-chip technology can assist in understanding injuries and fatalities caused by inhaled chlorine gas — a potential national security threat — and to develop treatments for those injuries.

The lung-on-a-chip platform is part of Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine’s body-on-a-chip program — a miniaturized system of human organs that can model the body’s response to harmful agents, test the effects of new agents during drug discovery, and potentially help to develop potential therapies.

“We are continually looking for disruptive technologies that accelerate the development of medical products to save lives in incidents involving some of the most horrific health security threats our country faces,” Rick Bright, director of the federal Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), said in a statement.

The five-year grant includes a $13.5 million commitment for the first two years.

“We look forward to pursuing the long-term goal of this research with BARDA, which is to reduce the overall burden of in vivo testing in the development and management of products for human clinical use, and to speed up the development of treatments,” Dr. Anthony Atala, head of the regenerative medicine institute, said in a statement.

Currently, the study of respiratory health, disease and biomedical interventions primarily is performed in animal models, or 2D cell culture models using human or animal cells.

Local researchers will work with Precision Medicine colleagues with expertise in genomics to identify the effects of chlorine gas and other toxic agents on the lungs, and to determine the usefulness of the organoid in developing treatments for the resulting lung injuries.

Chlorine gas was used as a weapon during the trench warfare fighting in World War I. In more recent times, it has been used repeatedly during the Syrian civil war.

The amount of chlorine manufactured in the U.S., along with its ready availability, makes this chemical a potential national security threat.

For example, in 2005 a train accident in Graniteville, S.C., caused a tank car containing chlorine gas to leak, resulting in nine deaths and at least 250 injuries.

Depending on the outcome of these early studies, BARDA and its partners may use organ-on-a-chip technology to test potential treatments for lung or other organ injuries that are caused by other chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear (CBRN) agents.

If used in developing products to treat or cure injuries or illnesses, organ-on-a-chip technology may reduce the number of animal studies needed for regulatory approval of these products. The need for fewer studies could reduce the development time and costs for many national security medical countermeasures.

BARDA’s chemical countermeasures program is engaged with 16 different partners to develop therapeutics to protect from and to treat injuries caused by a variety of chemical threats, including three other partners whose products are being tested to treat chlorine-related injuries.

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