Organs-on-Chips Challenge the Future of Animal Testing for Medical Means

New technology that mimics human organs could be a more accurate substitute for drug testing.
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New technology that mimics human organs could be a more accurate substitute for drug testing.

You may just have to see it to believe it, but a device that’s barely the size of a small computer memory stick can function the same as a living, breathing human lung.

Developed by a team of Harvard University bioengineers at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, these miniature organs called Organs-on-Chips are made of a flexible, porous membrane and hollow microfluidic channels filled with living human cells and tissues. For the chips that mimic lung tissue, there are also airway cells, which allow the chip to stretch and contract as though it is breathing.

Numerous rounds of animal testing that cost billions of dollars is what’s currently involved when it comes to the safe evaluation of pharmaceutical drugs, Don Ingber, founding director of the Wyss Institute, said in an interview on YouTube. But the fact that humans and rodents metabolize chemical compounds differently makes animal testing less predictive of how the human body will react.

One prime example of the disconnect between human and animal testing is the drug troglitazone, approved for treating diabetes in the U.S., Japan and United Kingdom in the mid-1990s. By 2000, it was taken off the market after causing liver failure in hundreds of patients along with 63 deaths — a side effect that never arose in the experiments with rats, Nature reported.

Since Organs-on-Chips are composed of human cells, it’s believed the results will be more accurate to how human organs will respond to various drug treatments. Also, the chips provide a quicker turnaround time for pharmaceutical testing and will be more accessible to scientists outside the biomedical engineering arena.

“I think the beauty of this technology is that it’s so easy and straightforward,” Dan Huh, a technology development fellow, said in a video produced by the Wyss Institute. “A lot of people can use it without getting trained, especially biologists, clinicians and chemists who don’t have an engineering background.”

According to Ingber, the project is currently generating interest from pharmaceuticals to begin replacing certain animal studies with the Organs-on-Chips, and he is hopeful to announce a pharmaceutical alliance soon.

Learn more about Organs-on-Chips at the Wyss Institute’s website and in the video below:

Top photo credit: Harvard's Wyss Institute