A Revolutionary New Medical Research Device: The Biochip
A miraculous new medical invention, which replicates human organs on microchips, has just won a major design award. Dubbed “Organs-on-a-chip”, they look just like small, clear blocks of plastic, around the size of a USB, but these amazing devices could well see the end of animal testing and be revolutionary in the development of new drugs. A whole new world of medicine that is entirely personalised could be opening up.
As shown in the picture, tiny tubes are attached to a small, transparent plastic block, pumping fluid and air in and out in imperceptible amounts. In appearance, it has the look of a Fox’s Glacier Mint which is hooked up to a life support machine, but this simple-looking chunk of transparent silicone is a model organ which could revolutionise the pharmaceutical industry, inasmuch as there will be a greatly reduced need for testing on animals and the development of new drugs could be more speedy.
This is the Lung-on-a-Chip, which is a simulation of the biological processes which regularly take place within a human lung. It was developed by the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University and has been given the Design of the Year Award by London’s Design Museum. These “organs on chips” are lined with living human cells and thus they mimic the tissue structures and mechanical actions of human organs, all of which promises to accelerate the discovery of new drugs and decrease development costs. This will possibly pave the way for personalised medicine in the future.
These micro devices work through the recreation of tissue interfaces in human organs inside a transparent chip made of polymer, which means that the actions of bacteria, drugs and blood cells can be monitored easily through a microscope. There is a tiny channel running through the centre, divided along the length by blood capillary cells on one side and human lung cells on the other. When air is run through one side and a blood-type solution through the other, while using a vacuum to create an expanding and contracting motion, the biochip simulates the process of breathing. Theoretically, this means that researchers could create and study various drug effects without animal experimentation or the testing in Petri dishes, both of which take up a lot of time and do not give the guaranteed results needed for human trials. So far, scientists have succeeded in creating the functions of 15 different organs on the chips, and are hoping to come up with even more in the near future.
This is apparently the first ever time that a medical invention has won the London Design Museum award, so it can be seen that it is a truly groundbreaking design. Besides the obvious ethical benefit of not having to test on animals, the Organ-on-a-Chip may prove to be invaluable in other ways: consider, for example, of immunotherapy, which is showing itself as very helpful in the treatment of certain conditions and diseases, including cancer. The problem, however, is that modern methods of this kind require numerous rounds of testing, whereas these biochips provide a very convenient way of testing such treatments and their effects on the human body, which could dramatically speed up research efforts.
The most impressive element of all about these chips is that they could lead the way for fully personalised medicine - the results are not based on those of the average person in the average trial, but on a particular individual, using cells from their own body.
Picture courtesy of www.economist.com