How lab grown organs are changing healthcare

It might sound like something out of a science fiction story, but organ tissue is being artificially grown and used to advance medical technology on a number of different fronts.

They are called “Organs on Chips”, and they allow researchers to simulate cells in the human body for drug development, disease modeling, and personalized medicine.

What are Organs on Chips?

The Wyss Institute, affiliated with Harvard University, is leading the development of a breathtaking medical technology called Human Organs-On-Chips. The project allows small units of human organ tissue to be grown on polymer “chips” that recreate the biochemistry function and response of the cells in our organs. The cells are thus able to grow in realistic arrangements. Additionally, mechanical simulations applied to the chips allow the cells behave as they would naturally in human organs. By creating an environment that mimics the way cells feel and act in the human body, researchers are able to better understand and predict what is going to happen when medicines are given to humans.

Why is this a better technology than what currently exists?

Organs on Chips help to make the drug discovery process more effective and efficient. This helps solve a big problem in medical research. Currently, we test drugs in two general ways, either in petri dishes, or on animals. 

But these two methods of testing during of the drug discovery process are imperfect: 

  • The cells in petri dishes don’t behave exactly the way they do in a living being.
  • Animal trials fail to predict exact drug response in an actual human.

Organs on chips better mimic the microbiology of a human. By building simulations that closely resemble the way cells respond to medicine in the human body, medical researchers can find new drugs more effectively.

Designing Organs on Chips:

The chip itself is made of a clear flexible polymer. It is translucent so that we can see through the walls of the structure and observe what is happening among the human cells on the chip. 

By attaching the chip to various tubes and sensors, we can simulate blood flow to create a dynamic environment that brings in nutrients and removes waste products.

The chip has hollow microfluidic channels lined by living human organ-specific cells interfaced with a human endothelial cell-lined artificial vasculature.

Since cells are able to grow naturally with features like capillaries that allow blood flow to and from the cells, they behave naturally – the way they would inside our bodies. 

Simulating human living cells:

The chips don’t recreate entire organ systems, but small components that are of interest to medical research. They feature three-dimensional cross-sections of these major functional units within human organs.

The chip has mechanical forces that can be applied to mimic the physical microenvironment of living organs. These mechanical forces can vary in type and intensity.

They can be applied to a wide variety of cell / organ types to simulate the specific environment that occurs at that location.

For example, the mechanics of a chip can simulate breathing motions that occur in the lung, or the digestion process by creating peristalsis like deformations of the intestine cells.

Personalized medicine:

We can personalize drug testing by placing individual patient cells inside these chips. To do so, we take the individual’s stem cells and grow them into the desired type of organ cell.

This helps researchers discover the dynamic response in the individual’s body to the drug during mechanically simulated but realistic cell behavior.

The differentiated behaviors of one’s cells compared to a control group allows researchers to understand how these cells function within the unique micro environment of that patient as an individual.

Chip linkages as organ systems

The ultimate goal of organs on chips is to recreate a small functional unit of a human organ, not entire organs. But these organ chips can be linked together.

By linking multiple chips together, for example cells from your heart, along with those from your lung and even digestive tract, researchers can take a more holistic approach to medical research and drug discovery, better understanding how a drug might affect your body as a whole.

This may even help discover and mitigate unwanted side effects.

Why does this technology matter?

Organs on chips are an exciting medical technology for a couple reasons:

  • They will improve the accuracy and efficiency of preclinical testing for medicines, since they allow researchers to understand how living human organ cells respond to drugs and other treatments.
  • Medical research can continue developing organ-specific drug delivery systems. 
  • The opportunity for this approach to bring transformational improvements in the field of personalized medicine cannot be overstated. Researchers have been able to line the chip with diseased cells from patients, and the cells retain the features of the patient’s cells, becoming inflamed, etc. 

This post is a summary of the human organs on chips technology developed at Harvard / the Wyss Institute.

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