Tech Trends for 2016: Organs-on-chips

Scientists are producing devices that mimic the function of human organs; technology which promises to change the future of medicine...

The second appearance of microchips in our 2016 tech trends feature; organs-on-chips are a major scientific development that will become mainstream over the next 12 months.

Exactly what it sounds like, organs-on-chips are tiny devices lined with living human cells that mimic the structure and function of different human organs such as the lungs, liver and kidney. For instance, a lung-on-a-chip would simulate the biological processes inside the human lung.

These chips allow the impact of drugs to be tested rapidly and monitored easily through microscopes; the chips can even be joined together to simulate a whole body network of organs.

While early stage, organs-on-chips – produced by the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University – have the power to not only accelerate drug discovery and lessen dependence on animal test subjects, but some have argued they have the ability “to usher in the future of personalised medicine”.

Recently awarded the 2015 Design of the Year award from the London Design Museum, organs-on-chips have already caught the attention of big name brands. Researchers from the Wyss Institute launched a start-up called Emulate last year which has been working with companies such as Johnson & Johnson on pre-clinical trial testing. The brand has also been looking at developing the chips into its research and development programmes.

With some clinical studies costing over $2m and innumerable animal lives lost, the pioneering technology of organs-on-chips is certainly one to watch in the coming months.

How it works

Organs-on-chips are microchips which are embedded with hollow microfluidic tubes through which nutrients, air, blood and infection-causing bacteria can be pumped.

Manufactured in much the same way that IT firms would make the brains of a computer, the chips push minute amounts of chemicals past cells from the lungs, intestine, liver, kidney and heart. It then emulates the mechanics of those structures. The chips’ translucent polymer then enables scientists to see what’s happening inside organs on a micro-scale. The chips’ ability to act in the same way as a human organ makes them an excellent test bed for researchers and pharmaceutical companies.

There are a number of ways in which organs-on-chips can be applied:

  • To provide an accurate alternative to traditional animal tests that often fail to predict human responses
  • To test the effects of new drug candidates for safety and efficacy in human tissues
  • To test the safety of make-up
  • To test the toxicity of chemicals
  • To help scientists clarify how tissues respond to new drug candidates
  • To ensure better regulatory decision-making
  • To develop vaccines and drugs to counter bioterrorism threats

Explaining how organs-on-chips work, Wyss Institute founding director; Don Ingber, commented:

“Organs-on-chips allow us to see biological mechanisms and behaviours that no one knew existed before. We now have a window on the molecular-scale activities going on in human organs, including things that happen in human cells that don’t occur in animals.

“Most drug companies get completely different results in dogs, cats, mice and humans, but now they will be able to test the specific effects of drugs with greater accuracy and speed.

“The next step is developing a truly personalised medicine. A drug can be tested on your lung, or your brain, not a dog’s, or the ‘average’ person doing a trial.”

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