• 04.02.12

An Artificial Intestine On A Chip Knows How Food Affects You

Instead of eating food and then feeling bad, what about submitting your dietary choices to a miniature simulation of your own gutty works, so you can find out what you can and can’t tolerate?

Is milk actually good for you? In theory, maybe, but it’s possible that the seemingly innocent milk is triggering inflammation in your body. Eat enough inflammation-causing foods over a long period of time and your body might rebel, leading to a chronic inflammatory illness. But you’d have no way of knowing until it was too late. Soon, doctors may be able to use an artificial intestine on a chip to figure out exactly which foods are causing the most inflammation.


The Nutrichip, developed by researchers at École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) is a mini artificial intestinal wall on a chip (pictured) that consists of two levels: a top level made of cultured epithelial cells that represents the intestinal wall and a lower level made of immune system cells that represents the circulatory system.

The chip uses high-resolution optical sensors to find and measure cytokine production from the immune cells. When macrophages detect possibly dangerous materials in the human body, they release molecules like cytokines–thus making cytokines a logical target for sensing inflammation.

Here’s how the system works: Food is “digested” using digestive enzymes. Once it has been digested, the food is injected into the chip, where cytokine production can be measured. “We have to reproduce every stage in the digestive process before food hits the intestine,” explained Professor Martin Gijs, one of the researchers behind the Nutrichip, in a statement. Blood tests can potentially provide similar information, but they are more invasive (and just not as exciting as an intestine on a chip).

The researchers are starting with dairy products. Once Gijs and his team sort out the most pro- and anti-inflammatory foods, they will undergo further nutritional testing. One day, this kind of testing could answer all sorts of questions for consumers–like whether probiotics have a significant benefit or what an anti-inflammatory diet really looks like.

About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more.