Human Body on a Microchip May Test Drugs
A new project will wire together microchip versions of human organs such as lungs (top) and guts (bottom), creating a human body system made of chips.
CREDIT: Wyss Institute
A microchip version of the human body is under development. The final device won't look much like a person, but it will host real human cells and have the same basic functions as 10 major human organs. The device's makers hope it will become a high-tech testing ground for new drugs, replacing lab animals in some studies, they say.
Researchers at Harvard University's Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering have already re-created the functions of a few human organs on fingertip-size chip devices, including a lung-on-a-chip and a gut-on-a-chip. The institute is now announcing it's starting a project to develop 10 such chips and wire them together so they can interact in one complex system. Institute scientists will also build a controller for the chips that will send fluids in and out of the system and measure the biochemistry inside.
Just as a computer microchip holds an electric circuit, biological microchips hold circuits of hollow channels that can carry liquids. The chip's channels are lined with human cells and designed to mimic an organ in miniature. The channels in the gut-on-a-chip, for example, are lined with human intestinal cells and seeded with the beneficial bacteria that naturally live inside people's intestines, according to the Wyss Institute. The gut-on-a-chip's channels also stretch and compress, mimicking the muscular movements that human intestines make to move food along. Each chip is made of transparent, flexible plastic so scientists can observe what's happening inside.
Researchers hope a human body-on-a-chip will be a better testing ground for new drugs. The National Institutes of Health think the device may be a faster, cheaper way of testing drugs, agency officials said in a statement. The Wyss scientists hope their system will be an alternative to rats and other lab animals, as many new drugs appear to work in animals, but don't work when tested in humans, they say.
The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects has signed a $37 million deal with the Wyss Institute for the body-on-a-chip project. Meanwhile, the NIH has given out about $13 million to several other labs to develop other organs-on-a-chip.