Will Organs on Chips Revolutionize Drug Trials?

Bret S. Stetka, MD


October 12, 2016

A Chip Is Still a Chip

An obvious shortcoming of testing drugs on chip organs is that although involving multiple cell types and other physiologic factors provides a far better human model than a two-dimensional Petri dish of cells, it still doesn't come close to mimicking the multifaceted nuances of the human body.

"You could have a drug that is very toxic in an organ on a chip but not in an animal because, as an example, the animal has a spleen," explains Svendsen. "The chip didn't have a spleen!"

But, he points out, it soon might.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is a US Department of Defense program supporting innovative research intended ultimately to improve national security. Dr Ingber is one of two researchers leading DARPA-funded projects that aim to link multiple different chip organs to better approximate the myriad variables of human physiology and drug response.

Figure 2. Courtesy of Wyss Institute at Harvard University

The goal is to develop a system that can support this community of cultured, coexisting cells for at least 4 weeks in order to analyze how certain drugs might be distributed, metabolized, and toxic to the body. And they're getting there.

So far, Ingber's group has successfully linked four different human chip organs for 2 weeks and demonstrated drug distribution throughout the system. They're now in the process of testing seven different linked chips for 3 weeks.

If the project pans out, we may see a day when human physiology is recreated and drugs are tested on these somewhat Frankensteinian chip-organ networks—in other words, a model approaching a complete "body-on-a-chip." The approximation of human biology could ultimately help save time, money, and the lives of those with numerous disorders.

Still, Svendsen cautions to take it slow. "I think chip organs will be a very helpful adjunct, but we'll still probably need animal models. Then again, I'm British. I'm a skeptic!"

Editor's note: For more on organs-on-chips research at the Wyss Institute, see Video 2 below.

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Video 2. Discussion of chip organ research. Courtesy of Wyss Institute at Harvard University

Follow Bret Stetka on Twitter: @BretStetka


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