Researchers at Harvard's Wyss Institute are developing microchips comprising the cells and functionality of human organs. These organs-on-a-chip represent an advance that
could prove revolutionary for pharmaceutical companies who spend billions of dollars testing new drugs in controversial - and often ineffective - animal trials.
BOSTON MASSACHUSETTS, UNITED STATES (REUTERS) -Dan Shea is building a human lung. It may not look like a lung, but it contains all of the organ's cells and and functionality - fitted tightly together on a single microchip.
Shea and his colleagues at Harvard's Wyss Institute are breaking new ground in biomedical engineering, according to their director Don Ingber. He says that after years of research, the scientists are now able to replicate all types of human body parts.
"Rather than build the whole organ, can we build sort of the minimal functional unit, 3D cross section of your lung or your gut or your liver that would have human cells and that would reconstitute and mimic the way a while organ works. And eventually can you link all of these together and have sort of a human body," Ingber said.
Ingber says the technology has the potential to revolutionise the way pharmaceutical companies test new drugs.
"The idea here is that the pharmaceutical industry has been limited by the fact that animal studies just don't work. We lose innumerable animal lives at a huge cost, it takes an incredible amount of time and more often than not they don't predict what happens in human clinical trials," Ingber said.
Where animal trials fail, Ingber says organs on a chips will succeed because they are made of human cells and tissue.
The lung-on-a-chip is made up of human lung and capillary cells which are divided by a porous membrane. These cells are sandwiched between a pair of vacuum channels which mimic how lungs flex when breathing.
Real time imagery shows white blood cells attacking bacteria the researchers introduced into the chip.
"Because it is crystal clear we can look in a microscope and we can watch what's going in on these human cells and tissues and organ-like structures in real time so we can get insight into the mechanism. How does a drug work? How does a toxicity happen? And that's a huge value to pharmaceutical companies," said Ingber.
Ingber says his teams are now working on linking different organ microchips together - with the hopes of simulating the complex structure of the human body.
He says there is still a long way to go but he hopes one day his organ microchips will replace animal studies altogether - while at the same time providing a new and more effective way to test new drugs.