They may look like simple chunks of plastic to the average person, but to a drug researcher they could be the key to transforming the notoriously expensive and inefficient process of bringing new medicines to market. Called organs-on-chips, these devices are actually miniature versions of lungs, kidneys, hearts, and digestive tracts housed within layered polymer. And though they don’t look like their full-size counterparts, they act like them, sustaining living human cells in microenvironments that mimic conditions inside the body.
These artificial micro organs, which are being developed at Harvard, MIT, UC Berkeley, and other places, give researchers the ability to model what happens in humans when drugs or irritants enter the system. They promise to be far more accurate than traditional lab tests on cultured cells or animals, eliminating the false starts and dead ends that can help drive product development costs to $4 billion or more for a single drug.
In June, Johnson & Johnson announced several drug-research programs using devices from Cambridge, Massachusetts–based Emulate, a spin-out from Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering. The pharma giant will use Emulate’s lung and blood-flow-simulating thrombosis chips to study clotting, a side effect of immunotherapy and oncology medicine, as well as the company’s liver device to predict drug toxicity. It’s a huge vote of confidence in the future of tiny organs.
Emulate’s lung chip is made from layers of transparent polymer with micromachined channels.
In the central channel, a porous membrane separates two layers of human cells. As in a lung, oxygen flows over one layer, while the other is exposed to a bloodlike liquid.
The device mimics the push and pull of breathing by applying suction to the side channels.
Ports in the chip allow researchers to expose the different sides of the lung tissue to drugs or toxins.