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Robotically handled whole-tissue culture system for the screening of oral drug formulations


Monolayers of cancer-derived cell lines are widely used in the modelling of the gastrointestinal (GI) absorption of drugs and in oral drug development. However, they do not generally predict drug absorption in vivo. Here, we report a robotically handled system that uses large porcine GI tissue explants that are functionally maintained for an extended period in culture for the high-throughput interrogation (several thousand samples per day) of whole segments of the GI tract. The automated culture system provided higher predictability of drug absorption in the human GI tract than a Caco-2 Transwell system (Spearman’s correlation coefficients of 0.906 and 0.302, respectively). By using the culture system to analyse the intestinal absorption of 2,930 formulations of the peptide drug oxytocin, we discovered an absorption enhancer that resulted in a 11.3-fold increase in the oral bioavailability of oxytocin in pigs in the absence of cellular disruption of the intestinal tissue. The robotically handled whole-tissue culture system should help advance the development of oral drug formulations and might also be useful for drug screening applications.

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Fig. 1: Characterization of ex vivo cultured intestinal tissue.
Fig. 2: GI-TRIS interface device development.
Fig. 3: GI-TRIS transport variability validation.
Fig. 4: In vivo absorption predictability analysis using model drugs.
Fig. 5: In vivo absorption predictability comparison to the Caco-2 Transwell system.
Fig. 6: GI-TRIS intestinal transport screening of Alexa-488–oxytocin formulations.
Fig. 7: Validation experiments and in vivo pharmacokinetic and histological analysis of oxytocin formulations.

Data availability

The main data supporting the results in this study are available within the paper and its Supplementary Information. The raw and analysed datasets generated during the study are too big to be publicly shared; however, they are available for research purposes from the corresponding authors upon reasonable request.


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We want to thank S. Kern, D. Hartman and S. Hershenson from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for helpful discussions around the application and development of the GI-TRIS system. We thank J. Haupt and M. Jamiel for help with the in vivo porcine work. This work was funded in part by the National Institutes of Health (grant no. EB-000244) and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (grant no. OPP1096734). T.v.E. and D.R. were funded by the Swiss National Foundation. We thank the Hope Babette Tang Histology Facility at the Koch Institute at MIT for the histology work and consultation. We would also like to thank the Microscopy Core Facility and the Swanson Biotechnology Center High Throughput Screening Facility. We are grateful for all members of the Langer and Traverso laboratories for helpful methodological suggestions.

Author information




T.v.E., R.L. and G.T. conceived the study and designed experiments. T.v.E. performed experiments and data analyses. S.S. performed experiments and assisted in data analyses. D.R. performed computational modelling and helped with data analyses. D.M. manufactured the device and helped in its design. F.J. performed finite element analysis. Y.S. performed PCR analysis and helped with western blotting. Y.-A.L.L. performed SEM analysis. C.S. provided help and guidance regarding ultrasound-mediated transfection experiments. T.E. performed transport experiments and helped with Caco-2 meta-analysis. J.L. and H.L. assisted in oxytocin screening and mechanistic experiments. S.B. helped with Caco-2 meta-analysis. C.C., L.B. and A.H. performed pharmacokinetics experiments in pigs. T.v.E. and G.T. performed data interpretation and wrote the manuscript. R.L. and G.T. supervised the research.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Robert Langer or Giovanni Traverso.

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Competing interests

The authors declare US Provisional Patent application no. 62/476,181 filed on 24 March 2017 covering the technologies described. T.v.E., G.T. and R.L. have a financial interest in Vivtex Corporation, a biotechnology company focused on the application of GI models for pharmaceutical applications. Complete details of all relationships for profit and not-for-profit for G.T. can be found at the following link: Complete details for R.L. can be found at the following link:

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Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary figures and captions for the supplementary datasets.

Reporting Summary

Supplementary Dataset 1

Reported human absorption values of model drugs.

Supplementary Dataset 2

Overview of all publications that report Caco-2 permeability values for the specific drug listed.

Supplementary Dataset 3

Analysis of experimental parameters for selected Caco-2 permeability experiments reported in the literature.

Supplementary Dataset 4

Transporter–drug interactions based on published literature.

Supplementary Dataset 5

Absorption predictions for 39 model drugs.

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von Erlach, T., Saxton, S., Shi, Y. et al. Robotically handled whole-tissue culture system for the screening of oral drug formulations. Nat Biomed Eng 4, 544–559 (2020).

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