Sunday, March 24, 2013

Towards a Human Body on a Chip - Part III

Creating a human body on a chip is the dream of some researchers. In the first part of this series, I talked about the lung on a chip device and how we can improve the current drug development model by building those organ on a chip devices. Combining the chips to create an ultimate human body on a chip platform will speed up the drug development progress, end drug testing on animals and make drug testing more reliable. The second part described some of the ongoing problems with these device and how they can be solved. In the last part of this series, I will focus on the current status of this research. What has been done so far? How far are we into commercializing these products? What's left to do?

Which organ on a chip devices are out there?

The most-advanced organ on a chip device is currently the lung, developed by scientists at the Wyss Institute. Another device created by the same scientists is the gut on a chip (shown below). This chip is made of PDMS (a flexible polymer commonly used in microfluidics) and features microfluidic channels. In the image below you see two different colored fluids running inside the channel and exiting on the bottom. The structure of this chip is very similar to the lung on a chip developed by the same group. It has two channels (red and blue), one is running on top of the other one. In between there is a horizontally aligned porous membrane lined with real human intestinal epithelial cells. On the side of the colored channels are two chambers which can be pressurized in a cyclical motion to mimic the digestion happening in our body. These two are the most advanced organ on a chip devices out there. Scientists are also working on creating artificial muscles to mimic the movement in the heart, as well as on organs like the kidney, liver and bones.

Gut on a chip device
Image courtesy: Wyss Institute
Who is investing in the human on a chip?

In July 2013, DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, USA) announced a $37 million grant for the Wyss Institute at Harward for the development of an array of organ on a chip devices. The Wyss Institute has already developed a lung, as well as the gut on a chip device above. Further projects will include the heart, liver and kidney. Furthermore, they are developing chips that will mimic the human skin and muscles. The NIH (National Institute of Health, USA) also funded several researchers all over the country to develop organ on a chip devices. Their total funding amount was $13 million. The European Union is also funding a Switzerland based company, called InSphero AG with €1.4million for 3 years (starting June 2012). InSphero is focusing to solve the 3D structure implementation of the cell cultures, one of the main problems of current devices (see part II).

What is left to do?

To create a human body on a chip, several organs have to be fabricated, including the lung, heart, bones, kidney, liver, gut (see below). Other devices of interest are the skin, arteries and muscles. Ultimately, all of these single device will be connected via tubes to each other to form the human body on a chip. 

Concept for the human body on a chip.
Image from: D.E.Ingber, Trends in Cell Biology (2011) 21, 12, p. 745-754
Challenging and complex organs like the heart have not been fabricated in full detail yet. It will still take some years to form a complete human body on a chip, but more and more parts are ready to be commercially available and already help transforming the drug testing method. It will be incredible and exciting to follow this development.  


  1. Wyss is on to something. Gotta do some research b/c on who's making money off this because I'd like to invest. Pretty crazy and amazing stuff, depending on your look out I guess, but either way someone's doing it. This could lead to some serious medilogical advances.