Researchers at MIT have successfully linked together 10 mini-organs to create a revolutionary human-relevant model, the “body-on-a-chip,” also called the physiome-on-a-chip. The technology has the potential to reduce animal use in many areas of research, including the safety testing of drugs.
According to Dr. Linda Griffith, who led the research, “Animals do not represent people in all the facets that you need to develop drugs and understand disease. That is becoming more and more apparent as we look across all kinds of drugs.”
Dr. Griffith’s team interconnected 10 different mini-organs derived from human cells in a physiologically-relevant manner: liver, lung, gut, endometrium, brain, heart, pancreas, kidney, skin and skeletal muscle. All tissues survived for the four weeks they were tested and mimicked important organ functions.
Linking together multiple organs enables researchers to study drug metabolism and determine the effect of drugs on multiple organs, revealing potential side effects before human clinical testing.
While linking together 10 organs is an incredible feat, Griffith feels that more immediate applications of the technology will involve modeling two to four organs. For instance, her lab is currently working with a three-organ system to better understand the effect of gut bacteria on the development of Parkinson’s disease using brain, liver and gastrointestinal tissue.
During our conversation with Dr. Griffith, she shared her thoughts on how this technology will reduce animal use. She noted that
“Physiome-on-a-chip technologies such as our platform will not replace use of animals overnight—the FDA still mandates studies in animals for some parts of the drug approval process—but the intense interest in going ‘all human’ from both academic researchers and industry practitioners is driving the field to shift to non-animal assays in a one-by-one, application-by-application fashion.
“Confidence is growing that all-human in vitro models can provide information that is more useful than information from animal models, as more and more examples accrue. This is especially true for efficacy, as animal models often fail to capture true human molecular mechanisms.
“Off-target effects of biologics, which are often related to human-specific targets, are another important driver of all-human models. There is inertia in using animals as investigators and the FDA are familiar with them, but the Physiome-on-a-chip models are making headway to bring better information into the drug development process. This will reduce the use of animals in a natural way.”
The “body-on-a-chip” represents a major step forward in generating a complex, human-relevant model that has the potential to reduce animal use. We will be sure to keep you updated on the progress that comes from using this innovative research tool.
Trafton, M. “Body on a chip” could improve drug evaluation,” MIT News. March 14, 2018.
Hamzelou, J. “Ten connected miniature organs are best human-on-a-chip yet,” New Scientist, March 14, 2018.
Image credit: Felice Frankel