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Human Organs, Microchip Style

Microchips—tiny integrated circuits made of electrical paths that store information—are small by definition. Some of the ideas surrounding their use, however, are big. Very big.

Dr. Donald Ingber, Director of the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard, is on the forefront of investigating what microchips can do for human drug development.

Ingber is one of the speakers at this year’s “Big Ideas for Busy People” event, which is the running start to the Festival on April 29th, Festival-eve. The evening will involve revolutionary ideas in current science, presented at a rapid pace: picture a condensed version of TED talks. Ingber will deliver a five-minute talk called “Human Organs-on-Chips: No More Animal Studies for Drug Development?”

Virtually all the pharmaceutical companies in the world use animal models to test drugs intended for eventual use by humans, says Ingber. He and his colleagues have been busy reproducing the function of entire human organs, each on a single microchip.

“We’ve recapitulated whole organ systems,” he explains, adding that the Wyss Institute has replicated the chemical system of human lungs on a clear plastic chip the size of a computer memory stick. Their goal is to stop relying on animals for drug testing, and to use this efficient and reliable technology instead.

The chips rely on microfluidics, or networks of liquids confined to miniature channels each about a hundredth of a centimeter in diameter. In a microchip with two main channels, the top one could represent human lung cells, while the bottom would represent capillary cells—the tiny blood vessels that exchange material with the lungs.

Human lungs on a chip. Photo credit: Richard Groleau, Wyss Institute

The interaction between capillaries and lung cells is important. “This is where the action occurs,” Ingber notes. This space is where health issues like pneumonia and cancer metastasis take shape. Toxins in the air enter our bodies most commonly at this interface, too.

Ingber envisions his technology starting to be used alongside animal studies within the next couple of years. In ten years, he predicts, microchip technology might even be more significant than animal studies for developing drugs to address some health problems.

“We have a beating heart on a chip,” Ingber relates with detectable enthusiasm. “We have a flowing kidney. This is the beginning.” The ultimate goal, he notes, is to engineer a whole human on a chip.

To find out more, come out to The Laboratory at Harvard’s Northwest Building, located at 52 Oxford Street in Cambridge. “Big Ideas for Busy People” runs from 7:30-9:30 pm on Friday, April 29, 2011.

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