Organ-on-a-chip is a relatively new technology that reconstitutes the functions of human organs on devices as small as a computer memory stick. Each organ-on-a-chip is composed of a clear flexible polymer lined with human cells to mimic various physiological responses to drugs, toxins, or other chemicals. “They are essentially living, three-dimensional cross-sections of major functional units of whole living organs,” said Dr. Donald Ingber, founding director of Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, which launched this technology in 2009.
As an example, the lung-on-a-chip mimics a breathing human lung, with human lung cells in contact with human capillary blood vessel cells. “And then [by adding simulated breathing motions] the whole thing stretches and relaxes just like our lung does when we breathe,” said Ingber. Researchers have created various other organs-on-chips, including kidney, liver, and heart chips.
In January, the Wyss Institute announced the creation of a human body-on-a-chip: multiple organs-on-chips successfully linked to mimic whole-body physiology, allowing real-time observations of the complex biochemical and physiological responses across 10 different organs. The body-on-a-chip technology was able to predict organ-specific toxicities and changes in drug levels over time seen in human patients.
Because the devices are made using human cells, they are potentially more predictive of the human situation than current animal models. This technology also allows higher turnaround times and lower costs than traditional animal studies. “And we hope,” said Ingber, “our demonstration that this level of biomimicry is possible using organ chip technology will garner even greater interest from the pharmaceutical industry so that animal testing can be progressively reduced over time.”