Organs-on-chips are plastic microdevices the size of a USB-stick with microchannels and small chambers that are filled with liquid. The devices contain multiple human cell types which are cultured in a technologically controlled microenvironment that artificially mimics aspects of the human body like morphology, movement, flow, electrical stimuli and liquid gradients. The resulting device emulates human organ functions and can be used to study biomedical phenomena.
The unique aspect of organs-on-chips is that they function by integrating biology and technology in a single microdevice. In a lung-on-a-chip, human lung cells, synthetic membranes and microactuators integrate to form a device that moves, breathes, contains a flowing blood substitute, and that exhibits a functional immune response. The technical-biological integration produces ‘living microsystems’ that generate complex, high-level data that can normally only be produced in living animals.
The biomedical data that is generated by experiments with organs-on-chips is unique and can even be superior to the data from animal models.
Firstly, the controlled nature of organs-on-chips means that it is possible to generate experimental versions of the devices that can give unique insights into how and why a disease arises. What if we leave out a single integral cell type? What if we design a device that integrates only specific combinations of cells? What if the flow in the device has a unique, pre-defined profile? The individual parameters of an organ-on-a-chip can be independently tuned with a level of control that is unparalleled in animal models.
More importantly, organs-on-chips take advantage of recent advances in stem cell technology. It is now possible to culture stem cells from any individual and differentiate them into cells that are truly a reflection of the tissues of that particular person. By using stem cell-derived tissue to build ‘personalized organs-on-chips’, we can study health and disease in models that are relevant for particular patients or other groups of people.
By developing organs-on-chips at the MIRA Institute, we seek to transform biomedical science. We attempt to challenge the dominant position of animal models by developing a technical-biological alternative that yields similar data on how integrated living systems work. In addition, we do our best to demonstrate the biomedical importance of the unique, human-relevant data that we generate with organs-on-chips.