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The lab rat of the future may have no whiskers and no tail -- and might not even be a rat at all.
Scientists are working to develop special chips that can be used instead of animals to test product safety.
With a European ban looming on animal testing for cosmetics, companies are giving a hard look at high-tech alternatives like the small, rectangular glass chip professor Jonathan Dordick holds up to the light in his lab at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
The chip looks like a standard microscope slide, but it holds hundreds of tiny white dots loaded with human cell cultures and enzymes. It's designed to mimic human reactions to potentially toxic chemical compounds, meaning critters like rats and mice may no longer need to be on the front line of tests for new blockbuster drugs or wrinkle creams.
Dordick and fellow chemical engineering professor Douglas Clark, of the University of California, Berkeley, lead a team of researchers planning to market the chip through their company, Solidus Biosciences, by next year. Hopes are high that the chip and other "in vitro" tests -- literally, tests in glass -- will provide cheap, efficient alternatives to animal testing.
Medical advances ranging from polio vaccines to artificial heart valves owe a debt to legions of lab rats, mice, rabbits, dogs, monkeys and pigs. Animals -- mostly mice -- are still routinely used to test the toxicity of chemical compounds.