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Organs on a chip

Illustration and photograph of the modular multi-tissue organ-on-a-chip hardware system set up for maintenance of 3 tissue model. Individual microfluidic microreactor units house each organoid or tissue model, and are connected via a central fluid routing breadboard, allowing for straightforward “plug-and-play” system preparation initialization. Credit: Wake Forest Institute

At the turn of this decade several research teams have produced organs on a chip, that is devices that can model the working (from a chemical point of view) of a human organ, like a liver or a kidney. These chips are based on micro-fluidic technology and some are using actual human cells.

Now researchers at the Wake Forest Institute have created a modular set of chips, each one modelling a human organ, that can be used to test drugs at systemic level. This is important because all our organs are “loosely” connected and a drug does not have a localised effect. Even when it is affecting just a single organ, and that is seldom the case, the variations induced in that organ affect others.

As an example, the researchers tested a cancer drug targeting the lungs and discovered that the effect on the lungs led to the production of a protein that circulated in the blood and end up affecting the heart, damaging it.

The system developed at Wake includes heart, lungs and liver and more can be added. It is part of the initiative “body on a chip” funded by the Defence Threat Reduction Agency.

This initiative targets a 2 billion -90% failure rate that characterise pharma companies in their development of new drugs.

The organs on a chip of today are much more sophisticated than the ones of just 2 years ago since they now replicate the 3D structure of the organs, are no longer just providing a single layer of cells.

An additional bonus is the possibility of testing drugs without having to involve animals in the process.

The long term goal is to create a “personalised body on a chip” to test drugs on specific patient’s model. It’s science fiction turning into science and it may take less than 10 years.

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the New Initiative Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He is a member of the IEEE in 2050 Ad Hoc Committee. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.