The search for more efficient tests of pharmaceuticals without animal models is taking a stride forward, with a new technology being developed in the US called Organs-on-Chips. The new miniature platform and software, which mimic the mechanical and molecular characteristics of human organs, were developed by bioengineers from the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University.
The device, about the size of a small computer memory stick, is created using microchip-manufacturing techniques. It features a porous flexible membrane that separates two channels at the center of the device. The channels are filled with living human cells and tissues cultured in a fluid that mimics the environment inside the human body. Micro-engineering and automated instrumentation allows the system to perform real-time analysis of biochemical, genetic and metabolic functions within single cells.
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The idea is to authentically replicate, or "bioemulate" in science-speak, the workings of human organs. This way, scientists and even clinicians without high-level expertise can determine the efficacy and safety of potential new drugs, chemicals and cosmetics, with no animal models in the process.
The Wyss Institute team has formed a company called Emulate to further develop and market the product. They have also developed a system to automate the chips and connect them with a blood-like medium in order to reproduce the experience of the whole human body on chips. This way, researchers can get a better picture of the responses of the body as one unit and not just as series of individual organs.
"This advanced technology is the beginning of a revolution in the way we study human biology and disease," said senior scientist Geraldine Hamilton. She added that Emulate is more predictive of the human situation than animal models, besides being more cost-effective and less time-consuming. Therefore, new pharmaceuticals could get to market, and to those in need of them, more rapidly.
Another aspect of the new technology is that it paves the way for more personalized treatment with stem cells. "Our vision is we can one day put each patient’s cells on chips that mimic the function of organs, and this will open up new ways for us to design truly personalized treatment with stem cells, based on each patient’s unique genetic profile on their own individualized Organs-on-Chips," added Shlomo Melmed, senior vice president for Academic Affairs and Dean of the medical faculty at Cedars-Sinai, one of the institutional investors in the new company.
Emulate has just secured a US$12 million Series A financing to develop the product for commercial purposes. The team will now focus on design, biology and engineering in order to further develop the technology and design new products for various industries.
Besides the lung-on-chip seen at the top of the page, in the last four years the researchers have also developed more than 10 types of organ/chips, including some that emulate the liver, gut, kidney, and bone marrow.