The Future of Medicine: The “Human Body-on-a-Chip”

bodyonachip One of the aims of modern medicine is perfecting the way we tests treatments and drugs, so that the lengthy guess-work and clinical trials can be shortened or even cut out of the equation. While this would not only ensure the speedier delivery of drugs to market, it would also eliminate the need for animal testing, something which has become increasingly common and controversial in recent years.

Over the last century, animal testing has expanded from biomedical research to included things like drug, chemical, and cosmetic testing. One 2008 study conducted by The Guardian estimated that 115 million animals are used a year for scientific research alone. It is therefore no surprise that opposition is growing, and that researchers, regulators and even military developers are looking for more accurate, efficient, and cruelty-free alternatives.

bodyonachip1Enter the National Insitute of Health in Besthesda, Maryland; where researchers have teamed up with the FDA and even DARPA to produce a major alternative. Known as the “Human Body-on-a Chip”, this device is similar to other “Organs-on-a-chip” in that it is basically a small, flexible pieces of plastic with hollow micro-fluidic channels lined with human cells that can mimic human systems far more effectively than simple petri dish cell cultures.

Dan Tagle, the associate director of the NIH’s National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences, explained the benefits of this technology as follows:

If our goal is to create better drugs, in a way that is much more efficient, time and cost-wise, I think it’s almost inevitable that we will have to either minimize or do away with animal testing.

https://i2.wp.com/images.medicaldaily.com/sites/medicaldaily.com/files/styles/large/public/2014/03/18/new-technology-may-obviate-need-animal-testing.jpgWhat’s more, chips like this one could do away with animal testing entirely, which is not only good news for animals and activists, but drug companies themselves. As it stands, pharmaceutical companies have hit a wall in developing new drugs, with roughly 90% failing in human clinical trials based on safety and effectiveness. One reason for this high rate of failure is that drugs that first seem promising in rodents often don’t have the same response in people.

In fact, so-called “animal models” are only typically 30% to 60% predictive of human responses, and there are potentially life-saving drug therapies that never make it to human clinical trials because they’re toxic to mice. In these cases, there’s no way to measure the lost opportunity when animals predict the wrong response. And all told, it takes an average of 14 years and often billions of dollars to actually deliver a new drug to the market.

bodyonachip2According to Geraldine Hamilton, a senior staff scientist at Harvard University’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, it all began five years ago with the “lung-on-a-chip”:

We’ve also got the lung, gut, liver and kidney. We’re working on skin. The goal is really to do the whole human body, and then we can fluidically link multiple chips to capture interactions between different organs and eventually recreate a body on a chip.

This has led to further developments in the technology, and Hamilton is now launching a new startup company to bring it to the commercial market. Emulate, the new startup that will license Wyss’s technology, isn’t looking to literally create a human body but rather to represent its “essential functions” and develop a platform that’s easy for all scientists and doctors to use, says Hamilton, who will become Emulate’s president and chief scientific officer.

lung-on-a-chip-5Borrowing microfabrication techniques from the semiconductor industry, each organ-on-a-chip is built with small features – such as channels, vessels, and flexible membranes – designed to recreate the flow and forces that cells experience inside a human body. All that’s needed are different chips with different culture of human cells; then researchers can performed tests to see how drugs work in one region of the body before being metabolized by the liver.

This might one day help the military to test treatments for biological or chemical weapons, a process that is unethical (and illegal) with humans, and cruel and often inaccurate with animals. Hospitals may also be able to use a patient’s own stem cells to develop and test “personalized” treatments for their disease, and drug companies could more quickly screen promising new drugs to see if they are effective and what (if any) side effects they have on the body’s organs.

It’s a process that promises speedier tests, quicker delivery, a more cost-effective medical system, and the elimination of cruel and often inaccurate animal testing. Can you say win-win-win?

Source: fastcoexist.com, ncats.nih.gov, wyss.harvard.edu, theguardian.com

The Future of Medicine: The Spleen-On-A-Chip

spleen_on_a_chipSepsis, a full-body inflammatory state caused by infection, is a notorious killer, being both deadly and difficult to treat. As it stands, doctors use broad-spectrum antibiotics that have only a limited chance of success, and a misdiagnosis can cost a patient vital time. For military personnel serving overseas, where conditions are difficult and medical treatment not always readily available, it is a particular problem.

Hence why DARPA has been keen on finding new treatment options and contracted the Wyss Institute at Harvard University to the tune of $9.25 million to find it for them. Their solution: the “Spleen-on-a-Chip” – a blood-cleaning device that acts much like a kidney dialysis machine. Blood goes out through one vein, and back through another, but the real key is the magnetic nano-beads coated in a protein that binds to bacteria, fungi, parasites, and some toxins.

bloodstreamWith these impurities coated in microscopic metal beats, the blood then flows through micro-channels in the device where a magnet pulls the pathogens free, leaving the blood clean. The technique also takes out dead pathogens (killed by antibiotics) that can also cause inflammations, if there are enough of them. In this way, it not only removes the cause of sepsis, but one of the common side-effects of conventional treatment.

Don Ingber, director of Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard, described the benefits of their Spleen-on-a-chip:

The idea with this therapy is that you could use it right away without knowing the type of infection. You can remove pathogens and infections without triggering that whole cascade that gets worse and worse.

Since it mimics the effects of a real spleen, many have taken to calling it a “biospleen”, indicating that it is a genuine biomimetic  device. At the present time, Ingber and his associates are testing it on rats, with the hope of expanding their trials to larger animals, like pigs. But given the limits of their funding, Ingder estimates that it will be a good five years before  a serviceable model is available to the public.

blood_vialsBy that time, however, the biospleen may be just one of several organs-on-a-chip available for purchase. The Wyss Institute is hardly alone in developing biomimetics, and their spleen is just on of many devices they are working on. Ingber and his associates are currently working on the lung-on-a-chip and a gut-on-a-chip, devices that are able to oxygenate blood and process food into useable energy.

These latter devices will come in very handy for people with emphysema or other respiratory diseases, and people suffering from digestive problems or stomach cancer. And while larger aim, says Ingber, is to raise the effectiveness of drug testing and improve understanding of how the body reacts to disease, the potential is far more astounding. Within a few decades, we may be capable of getting our hands on machines that can compensate for any kind of limitation imposed by disease or our biology.

It’s a biomimetic future, people – technology imitating biology for the sake of creating enhanced biology.

Source: fastcoexist.com