Growing human Organs-on-a-Chip

Before any medicine can be brought to market, it has to be guaranteed it will not have any harmful effects on the person who takes it. To date health authorities require careful safety assessment, often involving animal models as well. The future, however, shows new ways to make the development of medicines better and faster, moving molecules from the lab directly to the patient.

It's smaller than an iPhone and yet it reflects the entire human organism: the Organs-on-a-Chip technology is a new alternative way to screen drug candidates in a very early stage for efficacy and toxicity. The technology enables researchers to cultivate human cells representing organs under physiological conditions. Multiple organs can be placed on one chip and are interconnected to model the dynamics of a human organism. This is possible because 3D cell culture, microfluids and 3D printing technologies allow the cultivation of cells from patients who, for example, reflect the disease genotype or phenotype. Therefore, the translucent devices provide a window into the tissue structures, functions, and mechanical motions of hearts, lungs, kidneys, arteries, intestines and other organs - in other words, the inner workings of humans.

How will we benefit from the technology in the future?

We along with many companies and universities are continuously looking for new and better models for drug development. That is why we have ongoing collaborations with engineers at the ETH Zurich and the Wyss Institute at Harvard.

Last year we intensified our focus on Organs-on-a-Chip because it offers the opportunity to obtain human-relevant information on a potential drug or active substance very early in research and development. The Organs-on-a-Chip technology provides a sneak view of a newly discovered molecule and its potential effects on humans many years before actually entering the clinic.

We also hope that this technology will enable us to make "personalised" statements about the efficacy of an active substance or medication in an early stage. Every person has its own fingerprint when it comes to tolerating a medicine and benefitting of the same. Think about the differences in human beings, for example some are able to drink milk, others can’t. It can be a small mutation in an individual’s gene that changes how the person responds to different substances. In the long term, the Organs-on-a-Chip technology can help us advance human-based and personalised research and development of drugs. In addition, we are investing in this new technology because we are committed to the 3R principles of reducing, refining and replacing animal models whenever we can. “Organs-on-a-Chip technology could potentially be a highly effective toxicity testing technique to use in line with the 3R principles: replace animal tests were possible; reduce the number of required animals; and refine existing scientific practices while still maintaining comparable results.” 

Nevertheless it is important to acknowledge that the technology is still very much in its infancy. The complexity of the chips does not yet come close to those of real organs. For instance the human lung has at least 40 different cell types of the lung tissue, the blood channels and the immune system. To date the Organs-on-a-Chip technology contains only one or two different types of cells. Therefore, animal models are still required to test in terms of the safety and efficacy of new substances and official order. Although we still have a long way to go, maybe Organs-on-a-Chip will help to get new medicines from the bench to the bedside a lot faster.

Tags: Science, Innovation