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Organ-on-a-Chip Breakthrough to Replace Lab Animals

Lung Chip

Researchers are developing miniature models of human organs on plastic chips, which will replace lab animals. Big pharmaceutical companies have started using these in vitro systems in drug development.

The science journal Nature reported yesterday that last week at the Organ-on-a-Chip World Congress in Boston, Massachusetts, Big Pharma showed great and immediate interest in the latest advances in miniature model organs exhibited there that respond to drugs and diseases in the same way as do human organs such as the heart and liver.

“We’re surprised at how rapidly the technology has come along,” says Dashyant Dhanak, global head of discovery sciences at Johnson & Johnson in New Jersey, which announced last month that it would use a thrombosis-on-chip model from Massachusetts biotechnology firm Emulate to test whether experimental and already approved drugs could cause blood clots.

As New Scientist explains:

“With the help of a 3D printer mini human organs can come in all shapes and sizes. In this video, a cluster of tiny hearts – shown on the right – beat in sync, and another pulsing heart is fused with a spherical, darker-coloured liver.

“Developed by Anthony Atala and his team at the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, the mini-organs represent the first step in developing an entire human body on a chip.

“The hearts were created by reprogramming human skin cells into heart cells, which were then clumped together in a cell culture. A 3D printer was then used to give them the desired shape and size – in this case, a diameter of 0.25 millimetres.”

Organs-on-chips are more realistic – and more reliable for drug discovery and testing – models of the human body than both human cell cultures and the very expensive lab animals, that belonging to other species frequently give dangerously misleading results.


Organs-on-Chips (Credits: Lab on a Chip)

Although any new drug must first be tested in healthy humans for safety, says James Hickman, a bioengineer at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, using an in vitro organ might help to eliminate or shorten this step.

The chips could also help companies to pinpoint the dose of a drug that is both effective and safe, says Matthew Wagoner, a drug-safety scientist at AstraZeneca in Waltham, Massachusetts. If regulators accept such data, the method might eventually allow companies to skip the portion of a clinical trial that tests a wide range of drug doses on patients.

The scaled-down organs are being developed to mimic the function of their life-size counterparts. The next step, in order to reproduce the complexity of a human body, is to integrate these different model organs and systems together. Eventually, they could be linked up to form an entire organ system that could be used to test new treatments or probe the effects of chemicals and viruses.

Many pharmaceutical companies say that organs-on-chips are now sufficiently advanced to justify investment in their use and refinement. “We think it’s important to be involved,” says Michelle Browner, senior director of platform innovation at Johnson & Johnson. Only that way can the technology be developed in line with what the company needs, she says.

Government regulators are also interested. This autumn, the US National Center on Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS) will bring together academic scientists, drug companies and regulators to discuss the chips’ use. NCATS is also funding 11 research teams, each of which is developing a different organ or system that will eventually be linked together to build an entire ‘body-on-a-chip’.

About the author

Enza Ferreri

Enza Ferreri is an Italian-born, London-based Philosophy graduate, writer and journalist. She has been a London correspondent for several Italian magazines and newspapers, including Panorama, L’Espresso, La Repubblica. She blogs at www.enzaferreri.blogspot.co.uk.