'Organ on a chip' technology is an exciting new approach developed in recent years as a groundbreaking way to test chemicals for human safety (toxicity testing).
Introduction – What is an 'organ on a chip'?
'Organ on a chip' technology is an exciting new approach developed in recent years as a ground-breaking way to test chemicals for human safety (toxicity testing). As the name suggests, they are microchips and generally they look pretty similar to those found in a computer or smartphone - yet these ones contain so called 'microchannels'; ultra fine hollow tubes within the chips which contain human cells, tissue and body fluids to act like an organ in the body, such as the lungs, liver or heart. Test substances can be applied to the chip and the chemical reactions examined and measured, to mimic the effects on different organs of the body. The technology is both sophisticated and ethical, but equally important - it is directly relevant to humans.
Chips developed to mimic single organs such as lung, liver, heart or skin are being expanded into so called 'multi organ chips' (MOC), simulating the function of four, six or even ten organs simultaneously, to replicate the whole body.
Incredibly, some of the latest cutting edge devices being developed includes a 'beating heart on a chip' which contains real heart muscle, blood vessels and other complex structures used to test the heart's reaction to drugs. It can also be used to study and prevent disease, for example helping to better understand heart attacks. Others are the 'Lung on a chip’, which can simulate breathing, air movement, blood flow and other very detailed lung functions, to study not only chemical reactions, but better understand disease developments such as lung cancer. Recent developments in 'placenta on a chip' are finding ways to examine the effects of substances used during pregnancy both safely and reliably, using high quality, cutting edge technologies. Also, because development of the chips and related organs have the potential to create a realistic 3D environment, they are capable of mimicking a real life situation more accurately.
Another amazing development is the 'brain on a chip’, which mimics the very complex and sensitive way in which chemicals pass between the human brain and bloodstream, another vital area of toxicity testing and one which urgently needs new approaches to predict human safety.
These are just a few examples. Advances in the technology have increased rapidly in recent years and multi organ chips are causing a stir in scientific research, due to their exciting potential to replace expensive and unreliable animal tests, which cannot predict human response accurately enough to meet today's needs.
A better way is needed to test all chemicals for safety
The organ on a chip system is considered by many in scientific research to have major potential to revolutionise the future of chemicals testing, not just for cosmetics but household products, food, medicines and a whole host of other substances.
Drug testing in particular is a critically important process. Animal tests (also called preclinical testing) are always carried out by law before moving on to clinical trials in humans, but animals don’t always respond to drugs in the same way as us, this means that potential toxicity to humans can be inaccurately predicted … or even missed altogether.
Clinical trials are expensive, so the ability to test using more sophisticated approaches before clinical trials could save millions of dollars. With up to $2 billion spent in trialling just one new drug, testing can take years, with countless animals suffering and dying in the process and no guarantee that the drug will work in humans after the animal tests have been completed. In fact, many previous drug failures and withdrawals have proved this to be the case and it continues to be a major issue for pharmaceutical companies, who are starting to realise that a better, more human focussed approach is urgently needed.
Biology meets technology - the way forward and an exciting future
Like many exciting new human relevant advances in technology, once they are developed, they need to be approved for use. Very recently, a major step has been taken towards acceptance of organ-on-a-chip, as the US agency responsible for approving all new public health products, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is collaborating with pioneering UK organisation CN Bio Innovations, to assess their highly advanced devices for potential use in safety testing for new drugs entering clinical trials. A number of world-class research organisations are involved in organ on a chip development, including the Harvard University based Wyss Institute.
Organ on a chip devices have developed from a ground-breaking idea into a critically important technology - not just in their future promise to replace the suffering of countless thousands of animals in chemical safety tests, but because of their potential to better predict human response to large volumes of substances on a highly accurate and detailed scale.
A better future to protect both humans and animals!
Organ on a chip and the 2018 Lush Prize
The Lush Prize is now in its seventh exciting year of awarding scientists and campaigners, all working towards initiatives to end animal testing. The Prize has always recognised the exciting work being done in organ-on-a-chip research and since its launch in 2012, has awarded several scientific researchers and organisations who are committed to this type of research across Europe, the USA and Asia and are working on cutting edge approaches towards the 'human on a chip'.
More information on the Prize, including further information on organ on a chip; the aims of the Prize in replacing animal testing with better approaches; and how we continue to reqard world class research and campaigns can be found on the Lush Prize website.
Written by Rebecca Ram, Scientific Research Consultant, Lush Prize