Figure1. New organ on a chip technology developed by Harvard University’s Wyss Institute. [Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University]
Figure 2. A cartoon showing how bacteria and white blood cells can be applied to either side of the chip membrane to study immune cell function. [Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University]
In case you missed it, a recent invention has brought us yet one step closer to being cyborgs. Ok, maybe I exaggerate but it's still a heck of an invention.
Described simply, the new technology is an organ on a chip. The creators are from the Harvard Wyss Institute, specializing in biotechnology and bioengineering. The intention of the organ on a chip project was not to create cyborgs but instead to develop a simple system to mimic and study organ function. More on the advantages and importance of this later. First, let's talk about what the chip looks like.
By the naked eye, the chip looks like a rectangular plastic plate that has a very simple circuit embedded within it [Figure 1]. Upon closer examination, one can see the circuit is not made of metal but instead contains a channel with fluid.
Suspended in the center of this channel is a very thin membrane that separates the channel into upper and lower zones. The membrane is permeable and two different types of cells can be grown on either side, in either zone. Because the membrane is semi-permeable, cells are capable of migrating across and water and nutrients can also pass through to the other side. This environment effectively simulates the microenvironment of tissues such as lungs, intestines, and even blood vessels, which have different kinds of fluids on either side of their membranes. The chip thus allows the cells of various organ types to be grown together, mimicking real microenvironments and allowing us to study how the cells interact with each other and react to different components in the two zones. For example, if one zone contains fluid with bacterial cells and the other contains fluid with immune cells, we can study how the immune cells migrate through the membrane to attack the bacteria [Figure 2].
Aside from the total coolness factor of these chips, what else is good about the system? For one, the invention has singlehandedly opened the doors to an entire new field of study involving complex cellular interactions. Until now, all cellular processes have essentially been studied in two ways. The first method has involved observing cells grown in culture. The problem with this method is that it is incredibly limited in simulating real tissue ecosystems found in whole organisms. In culture, you are more or less restricted to observing a single cell type at any time because it is very difficult to grow different cell types together and separate them into organized tissues like you find in real organs.
Unless you cut such an organized tissue from a live organism, you just can’t recreate the complexity. The second method involves whole organism experiments. When scientists want to test complex interactions between multiple tissues, they usually have to resort to sacrificing experimental animals after testing the desired conditions. For example, let's say a scientist wants to see how a cancer drug affects brain development (a potential side effect of the drug).
The scientist would first inject the drug into young mice and then observe their growth. To see if organ development is affected, the scientist at some point would have to kill some of the mice to dissect the organs. Not only is this a gruesome process, it is also limited because it only gives an indirect assessment of organ development by showing us the end result and not the intermediate steps.
Conversely, this new organ on a chip technology offers the possibility for tissue interactions to be observed at all times. Not only that, it also offers superior control over experimental treatments since test chemicals can be directly delivered to the tissues needing study. Simply put, this technology will save tens of thousands of animal lives. Oh, and just so you know: the organ on a chip technology beat out Google's self-driving car for first place at the London Design Museum's Design of the Year Awards.
Justin Fendos is a Ph.D. from Yale and a professor at Dongseo University in Busan. He is also the associate director of the Tan School of Genetics at Fudan University, Shanghai, and a National Academy of Sciences Teaching Fellow.
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