Empiriko’s ‘liver in a test tube’ could speed drug development


Less party, more geeky. That’s probably a fair way to describe this week’s national meeting of the American Chemical Society (slogan: Chemistry for Life), which followed South by Southwest Interactive in the Lone Star State.

But that doesn’t mean there wasn’t some cool stuff on display — like the “liver in a test tube” made by a Newton biotechnology startup called Empiriko.

The company, which emerged from stealth mode in January, claims it has figured out a way to replicate inside a test tube the chemical environment of a human liver.

Recall from biology class that the liver’s chief function is to filter blood from the digestive tract and then pass it to the rest of the body. Its role includes metabolizing drugs.

So Empiriko’s technology could allow drug developers to test new therapies in the lab and get a clear preview of potential side effects before clinical trials ever start.

With drugs already on the market, doctors could simulate the livers of individual patients and check for harmful reactions before writing a prescription.

“It’s basically taking out the guessing game,” Empiriko chief executive Pam Randhawa told me before the conference. “For a patient with type 2 diabetes, for instance, the first line of treatment is metformin, but if that doesn’t work then they’ll go to a second drug. So there’s a trial and error, and our goal is to reduce or eliminate that trial and error.”

For about a year, Empiriko has been collaborating with Massachusetts General Hospital to test drugs used to treat diabetes and cardiovascular diseases, with the aim of identifying elements of the drugs’ chemical structures that may be to blame for side effects. If successful, the program and others like it could enable drug makers to improve therapies even after they go to market.

Essentially, Empiriko could help bring to the pharmaceutical industry the sort of iterative process that is so common in the tech sector, where companies continuously update their existing products.

Randhawa believes her company also could reduce and eventually eliminate the need for many animal trials and make human trials more efficient, helping life-altering therapies reach patients sooner.

“This could cut down 30 to 40 percent of the approval time,” she said.

Cal Borchers is a business reporter for the Boston Globe. Reach him at callum.borchers@globe.com.
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