Sepsis, 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.
With 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.
By 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.