During the last half a year or so, you might have swept by the term organs-on-a-chip in your newsfeed. Maybe the term is not that captivating so you might not have read any articles about it, but there are so many promising benefits from these solutions that they will likely impact the world in many interesting ways. With this said, let us take a look on the technology and what it can mean for future drug development.
So, what is implied with the quite diffuse term organs-on-a-chip? Well, simply described these are chips with cell cultures that carry the possibility of simulating a response to applied substances, reacting in a way similar to entire organs and organ systems of the human body. Organs-on-a-chip solutions are subjected to heavy research within biomedical engineering, but are still in their infancy. However, since the investments are large, the technology promising and a lot of progress recently have been reported, it seems as if a very interesting future is awaiting the chips.
As Singularity Hub writes, considering the slow pace of drug development today, functioning organs-on-chip solutions would be nothing short of a revolution to the pharmaceutical industry. The first step of drug development involves animal testing for instance, but in the future we might not need to test our creations on these innocent beings at all if reliable organs-on-a-chip solutions could constitute a better and more ethical alternative. You see, even though drugs are firstly tested on animals, it does not mean that the human body responds in the same ways as the bodies of the animals. Therefore, in order for a drug to reach market human trials are also necessary. The trials are tedious, resource intensive and expensive and quite often show side effects which means that they have to be reworked. Conclusively, from the thousands of chemicals tested over years in the lab there are only very few that actually make it to the market. The BBC video below explains the concept:
The hope for the solutions labeled as organs-on-a-chip is to simulate the body’s organs and increase the accuracy and speed with which the scientists can screen new drugs. The whole thing works by researchers implanting human cells from different organs into tiny wells in the chip. The wells are then connected to each other through very small canals, and the cell culture is pumped around the chip with the help of a “heart” in the form of a micro-pump. Even though the technology still remains on an experimental stage, there are many impressive initiatives out there already. Within the coming years we will see how accurate these systems figure as predictors, and while they might not be one hundred percent perfect in their simulation the organs-on-a-chip solutions will probably deliver on their promise to some extent. Some contributors on the arena, such as the company Emulate spawned from Harvard University’s Wyss Institute, allegedly predict to sell the first chips and instruments within the next 2-3 years, according to the Boston Business Journal.
As was stated above, the initiatives on the arena are plenty and exciting. For instance, just a few days ago, a new and intriguing project utilizing organs-on-a-chip was announced. The Business Standard reports that researchers at Harvard have developed a ‘bone marrow on a chip’ that can help study the harmful effects of radiation on humans. Each year, the US government spends millions of dollars on researching and collecting possible remedies against the effects of potential biological, chemical and radiological warfare. For ethical reasons, many of these treatments have never been tested on humans. With the new project, we might soon enough know what can actually help humans if such situations would occur for one reason or another. Below is a video explaining how the Bone marrow-on-a-chip was built:
Currently a plethora of human cells are being applied to, and pumped around, the different chips for trials. These cells come from lungs, livers, intestines, skin, kidneys, and eyes among other organs. Whereas one should always be careful in predictions when it comes to new technology, the conceptual idea itself is nothing but outstanding. The ones that would be most worried about the escalating progress are probably the individuals earning a living as human guinea pigs, but their income seems be secured for at least a little while longer as the future steadily approaches.