Innovation in Modern Drug Development Using Microchips

In Brief:

  • Organ-on-a-chip technology is used to model and emulate real human organs.
  • The chips are lined with human cells, allowing them to recreate the same mechanical stress that cells experience in the human body. 
  • The structural similarity of these chips to real human tissues allows for drug testing in both healthy and diseased organs. 
  • Scientists believe the technology could save time and resources for the creation of drugs in the future. It could also reduce the need for animal testing. 
  • Although organs-on-a-chip hold great potential, aspects of this technology are still in the development stages. In addition, tissue chips are unable to model entire living systems, meaning that animal studies will likely remain an important component of the research process for several years to come. 
  • Nevertheless, the expansion of this technology helps improve the chances we can shorten the time-consuming process of creating lifesaving drugs. 

Imagine a clear chip, like a computer chip, the size of an USB stick. Now imagine these small chips can represent and simulate the basic function, organization and activities of a full-sized human organs. It sounds crazy. But microchips such as these, could have the power to modernize drug development by improving disease modeling and drug testing.

Organ-on-a-chip technology is used to model and emulate real human organs.

“We build human organs and tissues from the ground up, starting with the fundamental functional unit in an organ,” says Dr. Danilo Tagle of the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS). Dr. Tagle is the associate director for special initiatives at NCATS. He also oversees the management of the Tissue Chip for Drug Screening program.

Organ chips are lined with human cells, allowing them to recreate the same mechanical stress that cells experience in the human body. The structural similarity of these chips to real human tissues allows for drug testing in both healthy and diseased organs. Pharmaceutical companies face a significant problem when it comes to developing medications. The time and resources spent creating one drug can cost as much as $2.6 billion and take approximately 10 to 12 years. Traditional drug testing strategies are often to blame for the long and costly process.

“The way pharmaceutical companies are developing drugs using regular cell culture systems or testing drugs in animals while producing useful drugs turns out to be inefficient and almost always not predict accurate human responses,” says Dr. Tagle.

This is where organ-on-a-chip technology comes in handy. Because of the functionality of organ chips, scientists have more accurate models for human diseases. This saves time and resources for the creation of drugs. “It is estimated that at the minimum, it should save the pharmaceutical industry 25 percent in terms of drug development cost, and the impact of time spent would also be lessened,” says Dr. Tagle.

Current groundbreaking research involving the use of organ-on-a-chip technology includes understanding and potentially curing hepatitis B. Hepatitis B is a liver infection caused by the hepatitis B virus. This virus affects nearly 275 million people around the world. The development of a treatment or cure has been slow due to unreliable modeling systems used to test possible treatments. The Imperial College of London demonstrated that liver-on-a-chip models could be infected with hepatitis B and have similar responses to a human liver. Liver-on-a-chip models led scientists to learn more about how the hepatitis B virus reacts to specific immune responses. This discovery could help with future drug development for hepatitis B. Researchers have also proposed that organs-on-a-chip be used for personalized medicine to see how individual patients would react to treatments, allowing for more effective drug testing.

Organ-on-a-chip technology is also being used to model and aid in the development of new therapies for metabolic diseases. The Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center is currently developing a tissue chip that contains human liver and pancreatic cells for the creation of treatments for metabolic diseases such as type two diabetes.

Although organs-on-a-chip hold great potential, aspects of this technology are still in the development stages. In addition, tissue chips are unable to model entire living systems, meaning that animal studies will likely remain an important component of the research process for several years to come. Nevertheless, the expansion of this technology helps improve the chances we can shorten the time-consuming process of creating lifesaving drugs. Furthermore, the benefits that pharmaceutical companies would acquire through organ-on-a-chip technology have the potential to save millions of lives around the globe.

Many of my family members have been affected by type two diabetes and now I wonder how organs-on-a-chip will be used to help people in my lifetime.

Content expert

Dr. Tagle is the associate director for special initiatives at the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences; he has also led scientific oversight and management for the Tissue Chip for Drug Screening program.


Sources

Dr. Danilo Tagle. Phone interview by author. July 24, 2020.

Reardon, Sara. “Biodefence Researchers Seek ‘Homo Chippiens’.” Nature News, Nature Publishing Group, 17 Feb. 2015,  www.nature.com/news/biodefence%C2%ADresearchers%C2%ADseek%C2%ADhomo%C2%ADchippiens%C2%AD1.16936.

Tang, Huaqi, et al. “Human Organs-on-Chips for Virology.” Trends in Microbiology , 13 July 2020,  www.cell.com/trends/microbiology/fulltext/S0966-842X  (20)30184-0.

Brogan, Caroline. “Organ-on-Chip Technology Enters next Stage as Experts Test Hepatitis B Virus: Imperial News: Imperial College London.” Imperial News, 14 Feb. 2018,  www.imperial.ac.uk/news/184847/organ-on-chip-technology-enters-next-stage-experts/.

Whitesides, GM., et al. “Organ-on-a-Chip: Recent Breakthroughs and Future Prospects.” BioMedical Engineering OnLine, BioMed Central, 1 Jan. 1970,  biomedical-engineering-online.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12938-020-0752-0#citeas.

“2018 Tissue Chips for Modeling Diabetes.” National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 23 Nov. 2018,  ncats.nih.gov/tissuechip/projects/modeling/2018.


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This article was written by Anadi Shukla. He and the cSw student editing team would like to thank Jessica Meade for serving as a mentor on this story. Jessica is a science writer at the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIBIB) at the National Institutes of Health. As always, before leaving a response to this article please view our Rules of Conduct. Thanks! -cSw Editorial Staff.

Anadi Shukla

Author: Anadi Shukla

Anadi Shukla is a junior at The Community School of Naples, Florida, near Miami. Anadi is interested in the biomedical engineering field as well as informative research writing.

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    Thank you Anadi. Great article!

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