How to Build a "Human-on-a-Chip"

Can the essential functions of the human body's major organs be replicated in a series of flexible plastic chips, each about the size of a thumb drive? That's the goal announced today by the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, a nifty collection of labs started by Harvard University. The Wyss researchers have been making rapid progress on "organ-on-a-chip" technology, and today announced that DARPA will give them up to US $37 million to link 10 organ-chips together to mimic the whole human body. 

These silicon polymer chips have microfluidic channels carved into them that contain human cells; pumps and other mechanical systems act on the chips to replicate the motions involved in the beating of a heart, the expansion of the lungs, or the peristalsis of the intestines. These simple organ-chips could be used to study diseases, toxins, and pharmaceuticals. Researchers say these studies may be faster, easier, and more predictive than either animal testing or in vitro experiments.

Four months ago we brought you news of the Wyss Institute's gut-on-a-chip (picture at lower right), which hosts two channels lined with human intestinal cells and separated by a porous barrier to mimic the intestinal barrier that nutrients pass through. Before that, researchers mastered the lung-on-chip (picture at top right).

Today's press release alludes to the challenges the researchers face in linking multiple components together:

With this new DARPA funding, Institute researchers and a multidisciplinary team of collaborators seek to build 10 different human organs-on-chips, to link them together to more closely mimic whole body physiology, and to engineer an automated instrument that will control fluid flow and cell viability while permitting real-time analysis of complex biochemical functions.

Here's a video with more details about the lung-on-a-chip, and about this technology's potential in general.

Photo and video: Wyss Institute

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