The Organs-on-a-Chip technology is a new alternative way to screen drug candidates in a very early stage for efficacy and toxicity. The technology enables researchers to cultivate human cells representing organs under physiological conditions.
Multiple organs can be placed on one chip and are interconnected to model the dynamics of a human organism. This is possible because 3D cell culture, microfluids, and 3D printing technologies allow the cultivation of cells from patients who, for example, reflect the disease genotype or phenotype.
Therefore, the translucent devices provide a window into the tissue structures, functions, and mechanical motions of hearts, lungs, kidneys, arteries, intestines, and other organs – in other words, the inner workings of humans.
According to the California Biomedical Research Association, it takes an average of 12 years for a drug to travel from preclinical research to the patient, at an average cost of $359 million. And 90 percent of those drugs don’t receive approvals which proves the need for a revolutionary new approach.
This emerging biotech movement promises to transform medical science and radically overhaul the arduous process of bringing new drugs, foods, and cosmetics to market.
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Applications of Organs-on-a-Chip
The applications of organs-on-a-chip span from drug discovery to the clinic, from the pharmaceutical industry to biotech. These same chips are also applied in the development of safer cosmetics, consumer products, chemicals, and foods.
Emulate and a handful of other start-ups have created human organs-on-a-chip that mimic key functions of organs in the body. Johnson & Johnson and Merck have partnered with Emulate to test and develop applications for its human organs-on-a-chip technology.
“Think of the chip like a home away from home for an organ,” explains Hamilton, President of Emulate. “We can control the way cells interact with each other by applying relevant mechanical forces.” For example, Emulate’s lung chip can simulate breathing in and out. Blood and airflow are reproduced in the chip’s tiny channels.
The company has combined design, engineering, and biology to recreate a dynamic microenvironment housed within its organ chips. Along with a lung chip, the company has developed liver and intestine models and is working on the next generation, including brain, kidney, and skin chips. Emulate is also creating a Human Emulation System, incorporating organ chips, testing instrumentation, and software to collect and analyze data.
Challenges in reproducing the architectural complexity
“Challenges include reproducing the architectural complexity of the human tissues and organs in vitro in a miniaturised fashion, and how to link them in the right format that the interconnected systems also recapitulate the human tissue/organ interactions,” explains Dr Yu Shrike Zhang, Instructor of Medicine and Associate Bioengineer, Harvard Medical School.
Dr Zhang and a team of scientists from Brigham and Women’s Hospital are working hard to overcome this challenge with the development of a modular platform that allows easy rearrangement of different organ modules through a central fluidic controlling breadboard system. This offers the potential to expand the use of organ-on-chips in a range of applications, including drug screening and toxicity studies.
The team was able to build optical (mini-microscopy), physical (pH, oxygen, temperature), and biochemical (soluble biomarkers) sensors into microfluidics to be able to perform automated, in situ, online, and continual measurement of a variety of parameters that would otherwise be impossible to monitor with conventional standalone organs on chips systems. These innovations could greatly improve the ability to monitor long-term responses of organ-on-a-chip models of disease and drug effects.
Human Organs-On-Chips: Exhibit Video from Wyss Institute
Future of Organs-on-a-Chip
Factors such as rising healthcare expenditure across the globe and increasing death rates due to chronic diseases are believed to be the dynamic factor behind the rapid growth of organs on the chip market.
Further, rising research and development activities by major key players to enhance the healthcare infrastructure is envisioned to foster the growth of organ on the chip market by the end of 2024. Likely, advancements in healthcare devices and the increasing rate of organ transplants are expected to boost the demand for organs on a chip.
“This will open up new ways for us to design truly personalized treatments based on each patient’s unique genetic profile using their own individualized chips.” – Shlomo Melmed, M.D., Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of the Medical Faculty at Cedars-Sinai.
Geraldine Hamilton: Body parts on a chip
By combining the Organ-Chips with induced pluripotent stem cells (or iPS cells), there is potential to open a new world of possibilities for precision medicine. iPS cells can be generated directly from adult cells and programmed to give rise to every other cell type in the body, such as neurons, heart, pancreatic, and liver cells. IPS cells can be obtained from an individual’s skin or blood and program them into different tissue types to create patient-specific Organ-Chips.
Although we still have a long way to go, maybe Organs-on-a-Chip will help to get new medicines from the bench to the bedside a lot faster.
Images: Wyss Institute, Wikipedia, YouTube