Military’s ‘Body-on-a-Chip’ Could Fast-Track Pharma
DARPA, the Pentagon’s ambitious research arm, last week announced a $37 million grant for the development of an array of “organs on a chip” designed to facilitate the study of human physiology, in particular the rapid testing of new pharmaceutical agents.
Led by a research team at Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, the program will fund the creation of ten different “organ” micro-chips. All of them will be linked together by micro-channels flowing with a blood surrogate, and networked to an automated instrument capable of analyzing their functions and reactions. “With this tool, we’ll be able to study how drugs interact with different organs,” Dr. Don Ingber, founding director of the Institute and one of the project’s leaders, tells me. “There’s a unique capacity here to see cells behave the way they would inside the body.”
Already, Ingber and co. have developed chip versions of a human lung (portrayed in the video above) as well as a human gut. Under the DARPA program, the team now hopes to develop additional organs, including the heart, liver, kidney and even chips that mimic human skin and muscle. In an interview with NPR this week, Ingber offered a prime example of how the body-on-a-chip program might one day work:
“So, for example, you might deliver an oral drug to the gut, see it absorbed, watch it metabolize by the liver. It’s being peed out by the kidney, and you’re looking for its toxicity on the heart.”
Of course, given the vast complexity of a human organ, creating micro-chip versions isn’t exactly an easy task. The “lung-on-a-chip,” for instance, about the size of a computer USB stick, involved the creation of two tiny different channels — one lined with airway lung cells, the other with capillary cells — divided by a flexible membrane. The chip also contained a layer of flowing red blood cells, as well as side channels, powered by pumps and vacuums, that mimicked the stretch-and-relax rhythms of human breathing.
DARPA’s interest in these novel devices is, obviously, oriented towards national defense: The agency, in recent years, has been on a mission to fast-track the development of pharmaceuticals tailored to thwart specific biological threats and curb potential pandemics. “A technological solution to increase the speed and adaptability of vaccine production is urgently needed to match the broad biological threat,” the agency noted just last week, when they announced the successful creation of 10 million doses of H1N1 vaccine using plant-based production techniques.
The successful creation of these micro-chip organ mimics would further accelerate this kind of pharmaceutical development, by fast-tracking tests of a drug’s human safety and efficacy. It remains to be seen just how rapidly the micro-chips could work, but DARPA does have lofty ambitions where timing is concerned. Their plant-based vaccine manufacture program is trying to turn a conventional one-year vaccine development process into a four-week one, and the agency’s also funding a separate project that aspires to, as I wrote in 2010, “a vaccine to address any pathogen, developed in seven days and ready for injection shortly after.”
Military applications aside, however, Harvard’s micro-chip organ program could spur myriad improvements in other areas of drug development, by replacing costly, years-long lab and animal-based tests.
“Our ability to validate drugs and get them to humans is incredibly limited,” Ingber says. “Right now, animal testing is the only option. And aside from time, cost and ethical issues, it isn’t even necessarily accurate.” (Source)