Beyond Animal Testing: Organ-on-a-Chip Companies Usher in a New Era for Drug Trials

by Dana Sokolova    Contributor  , Andrii Buvailo, PhD          Biopharma insight

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Nearly two decades ago, a groundbreaking discovery in the field of biomedical research emerged, known as organ-on-a-chip technology, which quickly captivated the interest of scientists across the globe. Led by a bioengineer Donald E. Ingber at Harvard University, this innovative approach aimed to recreate the complex structure and functions of human organs within laboratory settings. By using specialized techniques, researchers successfully developed miniature models of organs, opening up new possibilities for studying human physiology in the lab.

The National Institutes of Health's Tissue Chip for Drug Screening program began in 2010 as a five-year partnership among NIH, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Since 2012, the program has been led and managed by the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS). This collaborative initiative brought together experts from various fields, including biology, engineering, and materials science, to accelerate the development of organ-on-a-chip models for drug discovery and toxicity testing. Through these joint efforts, scientists achieved significant milestones in replicating organ-level functions and understanding how different organs interact on these tiny systems.

In 2012 researchers from Harvard University's Wyss Institute unveiled an innovative "human-on-a-chip" platform. By combining multiple organ-on-a-chip models, such as the lung, heart, liver, and blood-brain barrier, this groundbreaking system provided a comprehensive representation of human organ systems. By mimicking organ interactions, this platform offered a more accurate environment for drug testing and disease modeling, laying the foundation for future biomedical research.

Nowadays, the field continues to evolve. Researchers are now embarking on a transition from organ-on-a-chip to an even more ambitious concept known as patient-on-a-chip. This innovative leap aims to replicate the complexity of an individual patient's physiology within a single integrated system. By incorporating patient-specific cells, genetic information, and utilizing artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms, scientists hope to create personalized models capable of predicting an individual's response to specific treatments or therapies.

Let us delve into the evolution of organ-on-a-chip technology, exploring key contributors to this field, and the emergence of patient-on-a-chip models. 


What is organ-on-a-chip technology?

Imagine a technology that can recreate the complex environment of our organs on a tiny chip. That's exactly what organ-on-a-chip (OOC) technology does. It's a cutting-edge approach that mimics the structure and function of human organs in a laboratory setting. By synthesizing organ-like units on a chip, OOC technology can simulate the behavior and physiology of tissues and organs, bringing us closer to understanding how our bodies work. This exciting innovation has the potential to revolutionize drug development and screening, offering a more accurate and reliable alternative to traditional methods. With organ chips, we can overcome the limitations of 2D cell cultures and animal trials, which often fall short in accurately predicting human responses. By providing a more realistic environment for cells to grow and interact, organ chips can significantly reduce the failure rate in late-stage human trials, making drug development faster, more cost-effective, and ultimately delivering more effective treatments. The success of organ chips is made possible by advancements in 3D bioprinting, fluidic chips, and 3D cell culture techniques, with the latter allowing cells to thrive under conditions that closely resemble the human body.

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What are the leading organ-on-a-chip companies?

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