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Organ-mimicking chip holds promise to speed drug discovery, model diseases

There's an interesting piece in Technology Review about how micro devices that mimic human organs could accelerate drug discovery and model diseases.

In a study published today in Science Translational Medicine, researchers at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard explain how their lung-mimicking chip allowed them to model a life-threatening disease and test the effects of potential treatments. The researchers are also developing devices that imitate a gut, heart and kidney. Susan Young writes:

The study, led by Wyss Institute fellow Dongeun Huh, focused on pulmonary edema, a condition in which fluid and blood clots fill the lungs. It can be caused by heart failure as well as the side effects of a common cancer drug. The researchers injected the cancer drug into the blood-vessel-like channel and found that fluid and blood plasma proteins leaked across the membrane into the air channel, similar to the drug’s side effect in patients.

This led to two surprising discoveries, says study coauthor and Wyss lead staff scientist Geraldine Hamilton. One was that the immune system, which was not represented in the chip, was not required to cause the leakage side effect as had been previously thought. Second, the team found that when they turned on the vacuum system to create breathing-like movements, the leakage worsened, another unknown aspect of pulmonary edema.


Hamilton acknowledges that both industry and regulators are going to want lots of validation of the organ-on-chip technology before using it as an alternative to animals, but the potential benefits of the chip technology are evident in today’s study, she says. “Not only do we mimic clinical response, but we also found out something new. This is a glimpse into the effects this could have on drug discovery and development in the future,” she says. “Not only could you replace the animal, but you gain further insight.”

Previously: TED Talk looks at “open-source” drug discovery, Re-engineering the drug-development process to speed medical advances, Accelerating the translation of biomedical research into clinical applications and Why drug development is time consuming and expensive (hint: it’s hard)

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