Explosion Of Interest In Organ-On-A-Chip Technology

November 25, 2019

November 25, 2019 | Organ-on-a-chip models were practically nonexistent a decade ago, but significant advances are now being made every few months. Among the many challenges facing researchers in the field are how best to engineer the tiny systems, overcome their isolation from other organs and find cells that will behave appropriately in the bioengineered environment.

My exploration of microphysiological systems began with Vanderbilt University professor John Wikswo, biological physicist and founding director of the Vanderbilt Institute for Integrative Biosystems Research and Education, who has been a thought leader on organ-on-a-chip devices from the beginning. That led to conversations with Jonathan Himmelfarb, M.D., director of the University of Washington’s Kidney Research Institute, who is focused on the translatability of these systems to clinical drug development, and Hesperos President and CEO Michael Shuler, who is intent on making body-on-a-chip technology an economical choice for preclinical drug testing.

The result is the comprehensive series, “Life on a Chip: Engineering Next-generation Organ Models,” which I’ve broken into three parts. The first introduces readers to organs-on-chips, their superiority over traditional two-dimensional biology on plastic, and the potential of these systems to reduce the need for animals in laboratory experiments—as well as where self-organizing organoids fit in the mix.

Part two of the series offers the backstory on how the mushrooming organs-on-chips industry was born, the role of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency in commercializing the technology and funding experiments that got coupled organs working together, and the multitude of single- and multi-organ systems now under development. Wikswo imagines a coming “renaissance in human physiology and systems biology” where organ chips will be a featured player.

The final installment provides a deep-dive on the work of Hesperos, whose specialty is providing integration assistance to drug developers interested in human-on-a-chip models for their preclinical efficacy and toxicity studies. The platform uses a proprietary serum-free medium, takes functional measurements of electrical activity and force generation of cells, and builds-to-suit systems based on a mathematical model of the body. Goals include creating systems that are cheaper than working with lab mice and better at predicting what is going to happen in humans.

I expect readers will be as fascinated as I was at the possibilities of these pint-sized microfluidic cell culture devices at delivering better results and savings to drug developers and enabling the moonshot goal of personalized medicine.

—Deborah Borfitz, Senior Science Writer, Bio-IT World