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

Researchers will link together 10 organs-on-chips to mimic the whole human system

2 min read
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

The Conversation (0)

This CAD Program Can Design New Organisms

Genetic engineers have a powerful new tool to write and edit DNA code

11 min read
A photo showing machinery in a lab

Foundries such as the Edinburgh Genome Foundry assemble fragments of synthetic DNA and send them to labs for testing in cells.

Edinburgh Genome Foundry, University of Edinburgh

In the next decade, medical science may finally advance cures for some of the most complex diseases that plague humanity. Many diseases are caused by mutations in the human genome, which can either be inherited from our parents (such as in cystic fibrosis), or acquired during life, such as most types of cancer. For some of these conditions, medical researchers have identified the exact mutations that lead to disease; but in many more, they're still seeking answers. And without understanding the cause of a problem, it's pretty tough to find a cure.

We believe that a key enabling technology in this quest is a computer-aided design (CAD) program for genome editing, which our organization is launching this week at the Genome Project-write (GP-write) conference.

With this CAD program, medical researchers will be able to quickly design hundreds of different genomes with any combination of mutations and send the genetic code to a company that manufactures strings of DNA. Those fragments of synthesized DNA can then be sent to a foundry for assembly, and finally to a lab where the designed genomes can be tested in cells. Based on how the cells grow, researchers can use the CAD program to iterate with a new batch of redesigned genomes, sharing data for collaborative efforts. Enabling fast redesign of thousands of variants can only be achieved through automation; at that scale, researchers just might identify the combinations of mutations that are causing genetic diseases. This is the first critical R&D step toward finding cures.

Keep Reading ↓ Show less