In drug development, in vitro human model systems are absolutely essential prior to the clinical trials, considering the increasing number of chemical compounds in need of testing, and, keeping in mind that animals cannot predict all the adverse human health effects and reactions, due to the species-specific differences in metabolic pathways. The liver plays a central role in the clearance and biotransformation of chemicals and xenobiotics. In vitro liver model systems by using highly differentiated human cells could have a great impact in preclinical trials. Membrane biohybrid systems constituted of human hepatocytes and micro- and nano-structured membranes, represent valuable tools for studying drug metabolism and toxicity. Membranes act as an extracellular matrix for the adhesion of hepatocytes, and compartmentalise them in a well-defined physical and chemical microenvironment with high selectivity. Advanced 3-D tissue cultures are furthermore achieved by using membrane bioreactors (MBR), which ensure the continuous perfusion of cells protecting them from shear stress. MBRs with different configurations allow the culturing of cells at high density and under closely monitored high perfusion, similarly to the natural liver. These devices that promote the long-term maintenance and differentiation of primary human hepatocytes with preserved liver specific functions can be employed in drug testing for prolonged exposure to chemical compounds and for assessing repeated-dose toxicity. The use of primary human hepatocytes in MBRs is the only system providing a faster and more cost-effective method of analysis for the prediction of in vitro human drug metabolism and enzyme induction alternative and/or complementary to the animal experimentation. In this paper, in vitro models for studying drug metabolism and toxicity as advanced biohybrid membrane systems and MBRs will be reviewed.
Keywords: Membranes, biohybrid membrane systems, bioreactors, drug testing, liver, human hepatocytes, toxicity.