The future of organs-on-chips in healthcare: Scientists just squeezed a beating heart into a micro-device

Sarah Spickernell
Follow Sarah
The cells behave exactly as they do in the human body (Source: University of California, Berkeley)

The gap between people and the technology they use is narrowing – we have machines that fit right under our skin, apps to monitor every aspect of our lives and a total dependence on the internet to find out information.

But there are few areas with as many new technological innovations springing up as healthcare, where nanotechnologies are being created to monitor cells, test drugs and deliver them to different parts of the body.
The latest of these is a heart-on-a-chip, which bioengineers hope will revolutionise medical research and move drug testing away from animals.
The group of scientists from University of California, Berkeley, managed to squeeze a huge network of pulsating human cardiac muscle cells into an inch-long silicon chip. It was built in such a way that it resembled the actual arrangement of cells and blood vessels found in a person.
"This system is not a simple cell culture where tissue is being bathed in a static bath of liquid," said Anurag Mathur, one of the main scientists involved. "We designed this system so that it is dynamic; it replicates how tissue in our bodies actually gets exposed to nutrients and drugs."

When they monitored the chip's reaction to four well-known cardiovascular drugs, the cells continued to beat normally for many weeks, and this has huge implications for medical research.
"Ultimately, these chips could replace the use of animals to screen drugs for safety and efficacy,"
explained professor Kevin Healy, lead researcher of the study.
When other animals are used to test the effects of drugs, the fundamental biological differences lead to high failure rates – it is impossible to predict the exact reaction of humans based on another species.
“Differences often result in inefficient and costly experiments that do not provide accurate answers about the toxicity of a drug in humans," said Healy.
It takes about $5bn (£3.3bn) on average to develop a drug, and 60 per cent of that figure comes from upfront costs in the research and development phase. Using a well-designed model of a human organ could significantly cut the cost and time of bringing a new drug to market."
It isn't the first time a human organ has been replicated in this way – last year, a computer chip resembling the human brain called TrueNorth was developed in the US. Just three millimetres in width, it contains one million brain cells and has the potential to help repair vision.

Related articles