Body on a Chip: 3D Printed Miniature Organs

by Abdul Rehman on September 30, 2013

Bioprinted Body on a ChipThe drug BMS986094, a candidate for the treatment of hepatitis C, cost more than a billion dollars in its research and development!

Imagine the loss when it was announced in August 2012 that this drug had Failed its Clinical Trials.

This is just one of the many examples when a drug fails in human trial, leading to a loss of millions of dollars that went into its development.

If the new “body on a chip” project funded by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) USA succeeds, companies will have a better way to test their drugs, saving them from losing billions of dollars.

$24 Million – The Cost of Building a Human

A mini human that is. The Space and Naval Warfare Center, Pacific (SSC) has given a grant of $24 million on behalf of the DTRA to Wake Forest Medical Center for developing 3D printed miniature versions of all the major human organs on a single chip, so-called the “body on a chip”.

Experts from the University of Michigan, Morgan State University and John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health are collaborating with Wake Forest Medical Center in this research. This $24 million grant may seem trivial when compared to the billions of dollars it could save if this research proves to be successful.

“Human Body on a Chip” – The Lilliputian of Physiology

The idea of creating miniature versions of human organs has been around for over a decade. The goal is to create a small sized representation of an organ on a chip that can perfectly simulate the functions and responses of the whole organ.

Initially, such miniature organs were two-dimensional and were unable to mimic the real human organs in a lot of ways. However, recent advances in The Field of 3D Organ Printing have enabled three-dimensional fully functional miniature organs to be created. Especially worth mentioning in this regard is the Wyss Institute which successfully printed several tiny functional human organs, such as the lungs, on small chips.

Although such 3D models of human organs help a lot in determining the effects of drugs on individual organs, but they fail to give a prediction of how those drugs will act inside a living body where several organs interact with one another. “Body on a chip” has been developed to address this very issue.

Simply put, “body on a chip” is a small chip on which tiny 3D versions of all the major organs of the body are put and connected by small channels or pipes. Living cells are collected from human beings and using 3D printing, they are assembled into three-dimensional tissues and organs. These small organs are then transferred on to a chip in the same arrangement as they are present in a human body.

Channels, resembling blood vessels, are used to connect these organs, just as they are connected in a real body. These channels that connect the mini organs and run inside each organ contain an artificial fluid, used as an alternative to blood. This fluid supplies nutrients to the miniature organs. It can also be used to supply drugs or micro-organisms to the organs, to study the response of the organs to them.

Finally, the chip contains sensors which continuously monitor the chemical and temperature changes throughout the chip. In a nutshell, this chip is a Lilliputian of the body’s physiology which simulates the functions and responses whole human body in a size of only 2 inches.

The Wyss Institute’s Channel on YouTube explains this point perfectly.

“Body on a Chip” – The Gold Standard of Drug Testing

“Body on a chip” gives several advantages over contemporary methods for drug testing. These are mentioned as follows:

  • Direct Human Testing: “Body on a chip” provides a method to test the effects of drugs, disease causing organisms and radiations etc. directly on human cells. This is far better and more reliable than the animal testing that is used these days to establish a drug’s efficacy in the initial stages. As Dr. Tony Atala, leading scientist of the research told LiveScience:

“The question is whether you can have a better system to test these drugs, so that you can bypass cell testing and animal testing by going straight to miniature organs.”

  • Low Fluid Consumption: The small size of the chip ensures that only a small amount of fluid is required for the functioning of the miniature organs. Similarly, the drugs need to be given in small amounts to produce desired effects. This saves cost and wastage of both the fluid and drugs.
  • Increased Portability: The “body on a chip” apparatus is about 2 inches in size. This means that it is highly portable.
  • Increased Process Control: The small size of the chip combined with sensors make the whole process very easy to monitor and control.

Future Implications – A Revolution in Medical Science

When completed, “body on a chip” will not only revolutionize drug development but also boost our understanding of the normal working of human body and how diseases change it. These and other implications are mentioned below:

  • Drug Development: The most obvious future implication of “body on a chip” is that drug development will be completely revolutionized. There will no longer be any need for years of cellular and animal testing before testing drugs on human body. This will reduce both the cost and time required for drug development. New drugs will arrive faster in the market and will be cheaper, safer and more effective. In fact, the increasing health care costs that we see today are largely due to the increasing costs of drug development. “Body on a chip” will effectively reduce this as well.
  • Chemical Warfare: You might be wondering right now: “What does the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) have to do with an invention which seemingly benefits only the pharmaceutical companies?” Actually, the reason why DTRA has funded this project is that with wars spreading throughout the world and USA actively taking part in them, there is a chance that chemical and nuclear weapons may be used on the United States itself. By developing models of how these weapons interact with human tissues, effective protection measures can be taken very quickly.
  • Models of Human Physiology and Pathology: At present, the major factor confounding our understanding of human body and the diseases that affect it is that we can’t experiment directly on human tissues. The working of many human organs has been surmised based on experiments in animals which may or may not apply to human organs. “Body on a chip” will change this. Our understanding of the physiology and pathology of human body will enormously increase as a result.

Conclusion – A Dream Realized

A person showed severe side effects to a drug. The hospital developed a new drug for that patient and gave it to him within a week. A poisonous gas was released in New York. Thankfully, the Wake Forest’s “body on a chip” was available. Millions of lives were saved because the antidote was developed and administered to everyone within just 2 hours.

All of the above may sound like a dream in our present time. However, in the near future, it will all become a reality, thanks to the $24 million investment that DTRA has put in “body on a chip”. See our related posts on the Organovo Bioprinting Company and 3D Printed Smart Aortic Grafts.

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