In the lead up to commercialization, drugs need to be tested for safety and efficacy, and chemicals need to be tested for acute toxicity to humans and animals. That process is expensive and time-consuming; even an extremely simple toxicity study in rats can take a month and cost $50,000.
Typically, the initial stages of these studies for drugs and chemicals have been conducted either in animal models or in human cell cultures. These techniques have their limitations. Animal models can differ significantly from the response of the human system, and tend to evoke increasing ethical unease as we move from rats to dogs and ultimately to primates. Cell cultures also present limitations for researchers, since they cannot support the differentiated function of many cell types, or actively predict tissue functions and drug activities that would occur in a living organism.
Over the past several years, though, a third option for pre-clinical research has become available: “organs on a chip.” This technology promises to take cell cultures to a new level and to obviate the need to use animal models -- at least in certain areas of research.
Two researchers, from Harvard and MIT, summarized this new development in an article in Nature Biotechnology last year:
“Organs-on-chips are microfluidic devices for culturing living cells in continuously perfused, micro-meter-sized chambers in order to model physiological functions of tissues and organs. The goal is not to build a whole living organ but rather to synthesize minimal functional units that recapitulate tissue- and organ-level functions. The simplest system is a single, perfused microfluidic chamber containing one kind of cultured cell… that exhibits functions of one tissue type. In more complex designs, two or more micro channels are connected by porous membranes, lined on opposite sides by different cell types, to recreate interfaces between different tissues... These systems can incorporate physical forces, including physiologically relevant levels of fluid shear stress, cyclic strain and mechanical compression, and permit analysis of organ-specific responses, including recruitment of circulating immune cells, in reaction to drugs, toxins or other environmental perturbations. Similar analyses can be conducted with chips lined by cells from different organs... to mimic physiological interactions between different organs or to study drug distribution… As an alternative to conventional cell culture and animal models, human organs-on-chips could transform many areas of basic research and drug development.”
So far, researchers have built chips that model lungs, hearts, kidneys, intestines, muscles, fat, bones, and skin -- and also multi-organ chips. The prospect exists of modelling extremely complex, whole-body processes with these devices.
The technology also intersects with the trend of personalized medicine -- an individual patient’s cells can be introduced into chips to study their specific responses to pharmaceutical agents, for example.
Organs on a Chip -- the Basic Architecture
As this technology becomes commercialized, it will become an element in the acceleration of biotech research. This is one more example of the innovation that we believe will continue to drive biotechnology as a market-leading industry.
So far, this technology is being investigated in research institutions -- although some spin-offs into private start-ups have begun. Work on a lung-chip at Harvard conducted by the authors cited above is being commercialized by Emulate, Inc., which claims to have overcome several key technical hurdles.
Investment implications: Organs-on-a-chip will become a key component of biotech research -- and more broadly, of toxicology research in the chemical industry. So far, this technology is being developed in universities, and early stage commercialization is being pursued by private companies. Investors seeking exposure to the theme should begin by noting the key researchers at academic institutions, and follow their activity serving on the boards of private and public companies.