Scientists have created a “body-on-a-chip” that consists of mini-organs, including a heart that beats, lungs that breathe, a liver, blood vessels, colon, and brain. Image is a sample of one creation. (Image Credit: WFIRM)

Medical researchers at the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine (WFIRM) in North Carolina have developed the most advanced lab model of a human body.  The body-on-a-chip is a system of microscopic organs made of human cells and stem cells featuring a mini-heart, lungs, liver, blood vessels, colon, and brain. Researchers hope that by creating a model of mini-human organs, they will help to eliminate animal testing, reduce clinical trial costs, and help speed up new drugs to market. The research team published their findings in the journal Biofabrication.


Each 3D tissue-like structure of mini-organ is about one-millionth the size of the actual adult human organ, and they contain nearly all the cell types in the human body, including blood vessel cells, immune system cells and fibroblasts. They function the same way as actual human organs. For instance, the heartbeats 60 times per minute, the lung breathes the air from its surroundings, and the liver breaks down toxic compounds into harmless waste.


The system has already been tested and proven effective for drug toxicity screening, even with drugs that are shown as safe in 2D cell culture systems and animal models. However, some adverse effects of these drugs weren’t demonstrated in three levels of human clinical trials. The system was also able to detect toxicity and replicate the damage seen in humans.


A cardiac organ created for the system. (Image Credit: WFIRM)


“The most important capability of the human organ tissue system is the ability to determine whether or not a drug is toxic to humans very early in development, and its potential use in personalized medicine,” said Anthony Atala, MD, of the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine. “Weeding out problematic drugs early in the development or therapy process can literally save billions of dollars and potentially save lives.”


The system also contains a “microfluidic circuit” that’s capable of functioning similarly to a blood circulatory system, circulating a nutrient and oxygen-containing substance throughout the organs. This circuit allows the creation of accurate models of drug effect, allowing true-to-life dissemination of a drug in the system, and the removal of waste produced when a drug is metabolized.


It took researchers at WFIRM nearly thirty years to develop large-scale human organs for patient transplants. Over 15 tissue and organ products/technologies developed by WFIRM scientists have already been tested in humans in clinical trials.


“Creating microscopic human organs for drug testing was a logical extension of the work we have accomplished in building human-scale organs,” said co-author Thomas Shupe, PhD, of WFIRM. “Many of the same technologies we have developed at the human-scale level, like including a very natural environment for the cells to live in, also produced excellent results when brought down to the microscopic level.”


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