Modeling the future

Roche launches the Institute of Human Biology to pioneer new approaches for drug discovery and development

Discovering and developing new medicines is critical to benefit society — but unfortunately, it’s also challenging, costly, and slow. Many great ideas that do well in early stages of testing don’t pan out in patients, but it often takes years to discover that they won’t work as intended. How can we speed up this process, without sacrificing patient safety?

Contributing to this goal is the mission of the Roche’s(IHB), launched May 4, 2023. Tapping into exciting new advances in biology, medical and scientific knowledge, technology and data science, the IHB is a cross-disciplinary endeavor bringing together academia and industry. It is focused on creating reliable predictive models that better emulate the human body — and deploying them directly in drug discovery and development. “The IHB combines the best of both worlds — exploratory research as in academia but with a clear translational goal - meaning the science can be applied to the real-life challenges of drug discovery and development projects,” says Matthias Lütolf, Head of IHB. “We need to understand as early as possible whether a drug candidate is safe and works in patients, not wait to find out in clinical trials which can be expensive and time-consuming.”

The time is now ripe to launch the IHB due to advances in the fields that it assembles under one roof: human biology, engineering, computational science and pharmaceutical research. While leading academic institutes around the world combine some of these elements, the IHB is unique in uniting all of them, and in its strong ties to both cutting-edge academic research and the needs of drug discovery and development at Roche.

One of the key advances underpinning the IHB is the newly developed ability to create a wide array of human “organoids,” or clusters of human cells that have been coaxed to grow into the kinds of tissue structures and relationships actually present in human organs. “My belief is that human organoids have the potential to complement most of what we do in R&D,” says Hans Clevers, Head of Pharma Research and Early Development at Roche and a pioneer in the field of organoids. “I'm convinced that one can implement human organoids at every step of the way — from target identification and target validation through preclinical safety and efficacy to stratification in clinical trials. They can even be used as a tool to predict an individual patient’s response in personalised medicine.” Organoids have the exciting potential to more closely mirror the biology of human health and disease than has been possible in animal models. As such, they “might not only revolutionise the way we do research and develop medicines, but also to discover completely new molecules for devastating diseases," continues Hans. Moreover, it’s possible to make organoids with genetic mutations known to be linked to disease to understand their impact on the organ’s assembly and function, and on how medicines work.

But to test new scientific hypotheses or medicines, making organoids also needs to be highly reproducible and consistent, which has in some cases been a challenge. This is one initial focus of the IHB. 

A major goal, Matthias explains, is to create a “hub for human models — a go-to place for scientists when they lack a tool or assay that is predictive for the disease they want to model, or even for a healthy organ system.”

The IHB brings together experts in human biology; bioengineers who are developing reliable organoid generating protocols and much more; computational scientists to glean insights from the vast data generated in organoid experiments; and pharma researchers focused on developing new treatments. While the IHB, based in Basel, Switzerland, has many great in-house researchers, it also plans to build strong collaborations with academic labs around the world who can bring in new ideas and techniques — and these researchers benefit, too, by gaining the opportunity to contribute directly to pharma discovery and development in addition to benefiting from insights into translation to sharpen their research focus.

“Being a part of the IHB is a rare and exciting opportunity for researchers, it certainly is for me” says Matthias, an internationally recognized leader in the fields of stem cell bioengineering and tissue engineering and who himself still has strong ties to academia. “The IHB affords the freedom of exploration typical of academia, while being able to create real-life impact.” In combining the best of both worlds, the IHB provides a one-of-a-kind opportunity to achieve biomedical and scientific breakthroughs that have the potential to change patients’ lives.

To learn more and join the IHB in modeling the future, please visit

Human model systems are miniature 2D or 3D living 'replicas' of human tissues and organs that scientists create from human stem cells in cell culture. They enable scientists to test potential drugs on these replicas rather than on animals, where results do not always translate well to humans. Examples of human model systems include organoids, organs-on-a-chip and other 3D cell culture models. Organoids are a particular speciality of the Institute of Human Biology (IHB).

Organoids are micro versions (tiny, self-organised three-dimensional tissue cultures) of the organs in our body, e.g. livers, lungs – which are grown in the lab, derived from the stem cells. There are potentially as many types of organoids as there are different tissues and organs in the body. Some of the earlier organoids were derived from the intestines, stomach, and even colorectal cancer tissue, paving the way for enhanced stem cell and cell biology research. In recent years, bone, brain and even taste bud and bone marrow organoids have been developed! Organoids help us understand the way our tissues and organs work, how disease develops and to test potential medicines.

Organoids: Miniature 3D organ ‘mimetics’ generated from stem cells in a dish

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Institute of Human Biology (IHB)

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