Organ-on-a-chip and medical device testing: not a hare-brained idea

Image credit: Gary Bendig, Unsplash

Image credit: Gary Bendig, Unsplash

The pharmaceutical world was a-hopping earlier this year with the news that the FDA had executed a multi-year research and development agreement to evaluate organs-on-chips technology developed by Emulate, a privately held company founded by researchers at Harvard University’s Wyss Institute

An organ on a chip is essentially a 3-dimensional cell culturing system built on a microfluidics platform. It provides an in vitro environment that mimics the biological processes of humans and other living organisms. Emulate’s chips, which are about the size of an AA battery, are lined with living human cells that can produce blood flow, air flow, muscle contractions and other responses (see the TED Talk video at the end of this article). 

The chips are controlled and monitored in a computerized research environment, and the resulting data can be collected for analysis. Chips are being developed and refined for body parts such as lungs, heart, arteries, kidney, liver, intestines, brain and even integrated whole human applications. Other companies developing chips include AxoSim, Hepregen, Hurel Corporation, Insphero, Tara Biosystems, and Tissuse.

Organ-on-a-chip testing has many advantages, including less reliance on animal testing, with its associated ethical concerns, and lower costs. However, medical device companies have been slow to recognize its advantages and as a result are not devoting much attention to this emerging technology.

An interesting article on this subject, as it pertains to medical devices, appeared recently in Nature Biomedical Engineering. It provides examples of successful engineered solutions utilizing this type of microfluidic testing, along with a long list of potential applications, such as using a bladder-on-a-chip to evaluate infection pathogenesis associated with urinary catheters, and many others. The authors make an excellent case for why the medical device industry should get on board and start exploring ways to use this developing technology.

"It's relatively easy to imagine a new medicine, a better cure for some disease. The hard part, though, is testing it, and that can delay promising new cures for years. Geraldine Hamilton, president and CSO of Emulate, shows how her lab creates organs and body parts on a chip, simple structures with all the pieces essential to testing new medications -- even custom cures for one specific person."