Institute researchers and a multidisciplinary team of collaborators are engineering microchips that recapitulate the microarchitecture and functions of living organs, such as the lung, heart, and intestine. These microchips, called organs-on-chips, could one day form an accurate alternative to traditional animal testing.
Each individual organ-on-chip is composed of a clear flexible polymer about the size of a computer memory stick that contains hollow microfluidic channels lined by living human cells. Because the microdevices are translucent, they provide a window into the inner workings of human organs.
The Wyss Institute team seeks to build ten different human organs-on-chips and link them together on an automated instrument to mimic whole-body physiology. The instrument will control fluid flow and cell viability while permitting real-time observation of the cultured tissues and analysis of complex biochemical functions. This instrumented “human-on-a-chip” will be used to rapidly assess responses to new drug candidates, providing critical information on their safety and efficacy.
“A microchip embedded with hollow microfluidic tubes that are lined with human cells, through which air, nutrients, blood and infection-causing bacteria could be pumped. These chips get manufactured the same way companies like Intel make the brains of a computer. But instead of moving electrons through silicon, these chips push minute quantities of chemicals past cells from lungs, intestines, livers, kidneys and hearts.
Networks of almost unimaginably tiny tubes give the technology its name—microfluidics—and let the chips mimic the structure and function of complete organs, making them an excellent testbed for pharmaceuticals. The ultimate goal is to lessen dependence on animal test subjects and decrease time and cost for developing drugs.” WIRED
When the Harvard team first published its findings on the chips in 2010, the research was purely scientific. Now, five years later, it’s not only been inducted into the world’s foremost design collection, it’s also been named Design of the Year.
Every year, the Design Museum in London picks a single object and names it the best design of the year. But this year, the museum picked a winner: A chip that replaces animal test subjects with a complex package of human cells.