Organs-on-chip Technology – Alternative to Animal Experiments

This could be your heart on chips. Image credits: University of Southern California

Organs-on-chip could be the next big step towards the world of personalized medicine.


The development of organs-on-chip technology representing living human organs and its surrounding microenvironment has been a collaborative approach between U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the federal Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) since 2012.

The definitive aim of this initiative is to maximize the translation of cutting-edge basic research into the clinic.


Tissue chips or organs-on-chip technology has been developed by a start-up company called Emulate Inc. It was founded by the scientists from Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University.

The micro-engineered organ-chips are composed of transparent polymers, which contain fluidic channels lined with living human cells.

Such tiny organ-chips are capable of completely mimicking the cellular microenvironment. These can be an extracellular matrix, tissue-tissue interface, mechanical forcers, immune cells, blood cells, and biochemical surroundings.

organs on chips
Organs on chips. Image credits: Emulate Inc.

On April 2017, FDA announced a multi-year research and development agreement with Emulate Inc. to evaluate their technology in the centre for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.

It is one of the six product-oriented centers that work for FDA. Moreover, it is aiming to investigate the effects of toxic chemicals found in food, dietary supplements, and cosmetics on specific organs.

With the initial plan to develop and test liver-chips, the agreement may eventually expand to carry out research on other organ-chips, such as kidney, lung, and intestine.


The technology can serve as a potential alternative to animal models or cell culture models mimicking human disease state. This ground-breaking invention is potentially promising in accelerating the development of new drugs. Further, it can be used in testing the efficacy of existing drugs in a clinical set-up.

The time consuming and expensive process of clinical trials often fails to translate animal experiment results into human system. This is mainly because of the difference between animal and human pathophysiology.

In this context, this miniature human organ system serves a real platform to evaluate drug effects.

The organs-on-chips allow us to see biological mechanisms and behaviors that no one knew existed before. We now have a window on the molecular-scale activities going on in human organs. Most drug companies get completely different results in dogs, cats, mice and humans, but now they will be able to test the specific effects of drugs with greater accuracy and speed.” says Donald Ingber, the Founding Director of the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University.

Additionally, it also creates relevant therapeutic interfaces such as blood-brain barrier from human stem cells using novel differentiation method, serving a magnificent system to study drug pharmacokinetics.


To add some more, it enables researchers to study the dynamic interaction between microbes and human cells for an extended period of time. It can be done so by culture living microbiome together with living human intestinal cells.

We took a game-changing advance in micro-engineering made in our academic lab, and in just a handful of years, turned it into a technology that is now poised to have a major impact on society,” says Ingber.

To mimic whole body physiology, scientists from Wyss Institute have also developed an automated instrument to inter-connect multiple organs-on-chips together using their common vasculature.

This instrument is designed for real-time analysis of dynamic physiological and biochemical interaction between ten different organs. Such integrated approach of mimicking “human body-on-a-chip” is developed to evaluate systemic responses of therapeutic medicines in terms of its safety, efficacy, and side-effects.

To add extra steps toward personalized medicine, Emulate Inc. is now focusing on further developing and commercializing their licensed organs-on-chips technology and automated instrument to the industrial as well as academic setups.

Source Wyss Institute FDA Voice

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