Scientists in London are the first in the world to test how pathogens like the hepatitis B virus interact with artificial human organs.

Researchers at Imperial College London have used artificial human organs, or organs-on-chips, to replicate the make-up and physiology of the cells in whole organs. The study, published in Nature Communications, shows how the team used an artificial liver to take a closer look at hepatitis B infections. The hope is that this could help to make personalized medicine a reality and reduce the use of animals during drug testing.

At the moment, hepatitis B infections are incurable and affect more than 257 million people around the world. The virus is highly infectious and can lead to cancer and cirrhosis. The search for a cure has been hindered by the lack of a system within which potential therapies can be tested.

Organs-on-chips contain living cells on scaffolds that have similar physiological, mechanical, and structural properties to organs in the body. Drugs or viruses move through tubes that replicate blood vessels and pass through the cells. These systems also allow the living human cells to survive for a lot longer than they would in a dish.

The team used technology originally produced by CN Bio, a University of Oxford spin-out working on organs-on-chips for drug development, to produce a liver-on-a-chip that could be infected with hepatitis B. The technology responded in a similar way to the body, with immune cell activation and infection marker expression. Importantly, the study has helped to uncover how the virus evades the immune system, which could be exploited for future drug development.

The structure of the Hepatitis B virus.

Although this technology remains at an early stage, the scientists are excited about its potential in personalized medicine. The liver-on-a-chip will allow doctors in the future to test drugs on the patient’s own cells and select the one that demonstrates the best therapeutic effect.

Marcus Dorner, the study’s lead author, commented: “Once we begin testing viruses and bacteria on other artificial organs, the next steps could be to test drug interaction with the pathogens within the organ-on-chip environment.”

Chip technology is already in use for a number of organs like the heart, lungs, and kidneys. A system based on the liver could help to treat a wide range of diseases. The work being carried out at Imperial will go hand-in-hand with the efforts by Transgene and Enyo Pharma, which are developing a vaccine and farnesoid X receptor (FXR) agonist for hepatitis B, respectively.


Images – bluebay / shutterstock.com; Moonnoon / shutterstock.com

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