Hippocrates, the ancient Greek physician, declared that “anatomy is the foundation of medicine and should be formed on the basis of the human body.”
Well, apparently he knew what he was talking about, because 2,200-plus years and countless cadaver dissections later, we’re now spraying healthy cells onto damaged skin, growing human organs in Petri dishes and printing them out just like you’d print a Word document.
And now – as if we need to add to the wonders of modern biomedical technology – Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University is replicating human organs with “chips.” Amazing as it sounds, they’ve currently replicated the human lung in chip form, which they refer to as a “lung-on-a-chip.”
The driving force behind their creation is almost purely practical…
You see, even if we can grow organs in Petri dishes, a Petri dish isn’t an organ’s natural environment. The human body is. And when an organ develops outside the human body, it remains unexposed to many of the processes that organs normally undergo. This makes such organs less than ideal for research purposes, as any experimentation utilizing them will remain inconclusive.
Lacking experimentation on human organs a la Petri dishes – or even on humans themselves – researchers have traditionally turned to animal experimentation. But problems await scientists there, as well. Notably, most trials conducted on animals don’t yield the same results when performed on humans.
Wyss’ organ-on-a-chip attempts to solve these problems. From the Institute’s website:
“The Biomimetic Microsystems team is addressing these shortcomings by replicating complex organ structures with patterns microetched into flexible biocompatible materials. These patterns can be shaped into channels containing blood capillaries that interface with neighboring epithelial tissues, like they do in living organs. These tissue-tissue interfaces distort and recoil elastically when stretched, and mimic other features of an organ’s normal microstructure. This approach enables Wyss Institute scientists to engineer model ‘organs-on-a-chip’ that mimic the complex interactions between living tissues within an organ, as well as the physical cues that cells normally experience in the body.”
It’s a lot to (ahem) digest, for sure. But, simply put, all it means is that the organs-on-a-chip virtually replicate all the conditions that a normal, “in-human” organ would be exposed to, thus allowing researchers access to something that’s nearly as good as the real thing.
However, experimentation on single organs isn’t the end of the story, because as the Director of Wyss Institute, Don Ingber, explains, they have something bigger in mind – namely, the replication of the whole human body. “Eventually you can link all of these [organs-on-chips] together and have sort of a human body.”
A biomedical researcher’s utopia? Quite possibly, but it’s good for us, too. The better the research conducted by pharmaceutical R&D, the safer and more effective the drugs and treatments that we rely so heavily upon.
Although Wyss’ organ-on-chip technology is still being developed and has a ways to go before it ever enters the mainstream, from the looks of it, animal experimentation and Petri dish organs are well on their way to being a thing of the past. Hippocrates would be pleased, to say the least.