In an effort to provide a more accurate alternative to conventional cell culture and animal models, researchers at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University have developed a microdevice that mimics the structure, physiology, and mechanics of the human intestine. The so-called “gut-on-a-chip” could help provide new insights into intestinal disorders and be used to evaluate the safety and efficacy of potential treatments.

Although it is only around the size of a USB memory stick, the device mimics the complex 3D features of the human intestine. It features a central chamber in which a single layer of human intestinal epithelial cells grows on a flexible, porous membrane that recreates the intestinal barrier. To mimic the wave-like peristaltic motions that move food along the digestive tract, the membrane is attached to the side walls of the chamber that stretch and recoil using an attached vacuum controller.

The researchers say that the ability to grow and sustain common intestinal microbes on the surface of the device’s cultured intestinal cells allows the device to simulate some of the physiological features important to understanding many diseases. They believe that the device’s combined capabilities give it the potential to become a valuable in vitro diagnostic tool to better understand the cause and progression of a variety of intestinal disorders. It could also be used to test the safety and efficacy of new treatments and to test the metabolism and oral absorption of drugs and nutrients.

"Because the models most often available to us today do not recapitulate human disease, we can't fully understand the mechanisms behind many intestinal disorders, which means that the drugs and therapies we validate in animal models often fail to be effective when tested in humans," said Donald Ingber, M.D., Ph.D., who led the research team. "Having better, more accurate in vitro disease models, such as the gut-on-a-chip, can therefore significantly accelerate our ability to develop effective new drugs that will help people who suffer from these disorders."

The gut-on-a-chip is the latest in a series of engineered organ models developed at the Wyss Institute, which began with the lung-on-a-chip. The institute has also received funding to develop a heart-lung micromachine to test the safety and efficacy of inhaled drugs on the integrated heart and lung function, and a spleen-on-a-chip to treat sepsis.

The team’s gut-on-a-chip is detailed in the journal Lab on a Chip.