Heriot-Watt scientists hail artificial liver breakthrough – an end to animal testing?

Scientists at Heriot-Watt University are working towards creating the world’s first artificial human livers for drug testing to drastically cut the number of live animals used and get life-saving medicines into the clinic faster.

Alan Faulkner-Jones, part of the Heriot-Watt team, with the new artificial liver cells. Picture: Colin Hattersley

Alan Faulkner-Jones, part of the Heriot-Watt team, with the new artificial liver cells. Picture: Colin Hattersley


Dr Will Shu is leading the Heriot-Watt University team in the £100,000 project. Working closely with Roslin Cellab, the team aims to demonstrate how an artificial liver, created using human cells, could become a new testing platform for drug discovery and development.

The team is working towards creating miniature human liver tissues and, eventually, ‘livers-on-a-chip’, using novel technology that will ‘print’ the cells in 3D onto testing surfaces.

Dr Will Shu said, “If we are able to advance this technique, the medical benefits could be enormous.”

Testing new drugs currently requires large numbers of experimental animals. This work is expensive, time-consuming and is often inconclusive since drugs that pass animal testing usually fail during the even more expensive clinical stages of development, when the first human subjects are used.

Dr Jason King of Roslin Cellab said, “If successful, this technology will enable drug developers to test using human organ models at a much earlier stage. It should highlight drug failures well before they reach the clinic and help target resources towards the most promising new drug candidates.”

There is growing interest in the cell-printing technique from scientists internationally because 3D cells, such as those being developed by Dr Shu’s team, outperform cells grown in 2D cultures, which until now have been the standard in the drug development sector.

The research is currently funded by the Scottish Universities Physics Alliance (SUPA) INSPIRE programme.

Roslin Cellab is a Roslin Foundation company that offers contract research and is now using human cells to develop liver models for pre-clinical testing.

To read more, please visit the report on the Scotland on Sunday by clicking here.

UWI Label – “Revolutionary Potential”

Today’s report on more funding for the UWI Label (pronounced yoo-wee) is a great step forward for a product which Heriot-Watt has had a major hand in creating and developing.

Inventor Pete Higgins hit on the idea of a smart label which would tell him how long any jar had been opened for, and therefore whether or not the food inside had gone off.  This would be indicated by a clear strip which over time would turn green, indicating for how many days, weeks or months have elapsed since the jar was first opened, depending on the contents, before finally turning red to show the food had expired and was no longer safe to consume.

Heriot-Watt has helped develop UWI's technology.

Pete Higgins, inventor of UWI, over jars with his labels attached.

Through Interface-the knowledge connection for business, UWI (Use Within) was introduced to Heriot-Watt in order to help advance the technology of the label and develop the commercial potential of the product. The collaboration received Scottish Funding Council Innovation Voucher funding, followed by  funding through EDTC and the Product Realisation Centre, and has given rise to an important and successful partnership between industry and academia.


UWI will revolutionise safety standards in sectors like medicines, aerospace, cosmetics and food and drink.
– Pete Higgins

This latest funding of an additional £250,000 from Scottish Enterprise’s Scottish Investment Bank, £254,000 from a US private investor syndicate alongside £68,000 from private UK investors, is fantastic news, and will help advance the technology.

Heriot-Watt’s role in developing UWI

Spanning two of Heriot-Watt’s Campuses, Edinburgh and the Borders, experts were identified to evaluate the problem, and undertake research into the subject to find appropriate chemicals. With the help of funding grants, Robert Christie, Professor of Colour Chemistry & Technology, and Roger Wardman, Professor of Colour Science, supported the company  in to identify a range of chemical systems which have the potential to fulfil the requirements of the UWI Label.

The next stage was to develop a working prototype to show to investors, and demonstrate the technology to investors.

Top Heriot-Watt University academic, Dr. Will Shu, was asked to collaborate on the scientific development and overall design of the UWI Label, with the aim of it becoming a standard feature on every food jar throughout the world

%d bloggers like this: