Winner of the 2015 Design of the Year award, Human Organs-on-Chips could put an end to animal testing

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Meet the winner of the 2015 Design of the Year award. Developed by scientists Donald Ingber and Dan Dongeun Huh, from Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, the Human Organs-on-Chips are a family of tiny, yet incredibly advanced, contraptions that could one day obliterate the horrors of animal drug testing. Despite its small size, the microchip boasts an array of outstanding features, including the ability to accurately reproduce the complex structure of human organs.

Part of a project dating back to 2010, the breakthrough aims at revolutionizing the pharmaceutical industry, especially with regard to the time-consuming and expensive process of drug development and testing. Today, clinical studies take up several years, and millions of dollar, to complete. In addition to the countless animal lives that are lost in the process, the current approach lacks accuracy, since human physiology is significantly different from animal models.

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Consequently, the researchers, at Harvard University, have come up with a solution that is faster, more efficient and indeed less cruel. No wonder, the Organs-on-Chips has outrivaled Google’s famed self-driving car, to become the Design of the Year 2015. Paola Antonelli, curator at the New York-based Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and the person responsible for nominating the project for the competition, said:

Removing some of the pitfalls of human and animal testing means, theoretically, that drug trials could be conducted faster and their viable results disseminated more quickly… This is the epitome of design innovation. In some lucky cases, the form is striking. In this particular case, added bonus, not only is the form striking, but so is the function—the idea behind the object.

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Made from silicone, the Organs-on-Chips contain a series of microscopic tubes, which are in turn lined with live human cells. This creates an environment similar to the kind found inside human organs; the chip actually manages to imitate the structure and the mechanical motions of living tissues. According to the researchers, passing air, blood, nutrients, drugs and even pathogens, such as bacteria, generates specific physiological responses that can be easily observed and studied with the help of a microscope. Speaking about the project, Ingber said:

The organs-on-chips allow us to see biological mechanisms and behaviors that no one knew existed before. We now have a window on the molecular-scale activities going on in human organs, including things that happen in human cells that don’t occur in animals. Most drug companies get completely different results in dogs, cats, mice and humans, but now they will be able to test the specific effects of drugs with greater accuracy and speed.

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So far, the researchers have built quite a few Organs-on-Chips, including one for kidney, liver and peristaltic gut, each. Currently under development, the skin-on-a-chip is intended for use in the cosmetic industry. What is more, the microchip could also be used to treat infections and other related diseases. Over the next couple of years, the team will develop ten, different Organs-on-Chips, and will eventually join them together into a system that could effectively simulate the entire human body. He said:

We won’t be able to model consciousness, or the effect of gravity on your joints. But the next step is developing a truly personalized medicine. A drug can be tested on your lung, or your brain, not a dog’s, or the ‘average’ person doing a trial.

Marking the first time that the award has been given to a medical innovation, the Human Organs-on-Chips is one of 76 nominations that are currently on display at London’s Design Museum. In addition to its incredible potential uses, the micro-device is also being applauded for its clean, minimalist design. Deyan Sudjic, of Design Museum, said:

One of the most important things about the Designs of the Year award is the chance that it gives the museum to explore new territory. The team of scientists that produced this remarkable object don’t come from a conventional design background. But what they have done is clearly a brilliant piece of design.

The technology is currently being commercialized through a newly-formed company, called Emulate.

Via: The Guardian

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