Organs-on-chips: Will They Lead to the End of Animal Testing?

Miniature human organ models made using microchips…really? Is that even possible and could this be the end of animal testing?


These organs-on-chips are considered “organs” because they contain perfused chambers of living cells. These are arranged so that they simulate living tissues and function at the organ level in their physiology. So far, organs which have been replicated to the 3D microchip level include the heart, liver, lungs, gut and also bone marrow, all made into microfluidic cell culture-devices. Bionic!


What is so important about these devices is the large potential they have in biotech and medicine, as well as many functions for which they are already used.. For example, organs-on-chips have been used to image living cells in real time as well as carry out in vitro analysis (which more precisely imitates in vivo conditions).


(Source: Wyss Institute)

These inventions therefore present a miniature method to elucidate how tissues respond to new drugs, and perhaps even serves as a future alternative to traditional animal testing. So who exactly is making these organs-on-chips…?

InSphero – Schlieren, Switzerland

InSphero is a spin-off company from the Federal Institute of Technology and the University of Zürich. It is a company that provides with patented 3D culture platforms and has been involved as well with the EU body-on-a-chip project, which was granted €1.4M in 2012. CEO and co-founder Jan Lichtenberg was awarded recently the Swiss EY Entrepreneur of the Year 2015 award.

Emulate – Cambridge, Massachusettes

Emulate is a US-based startup that commercializes pocket size models of human organs. They recently announced that their brain-on-chip has demonstrated to be a physiologically relevant model of the human brain’s microenvironment.

It also enables successful co-culture of human brain microvascular endothelial cells, neurons and astrocytes. This chip allows, thus, direct testing of drugs across the human blood-brain barrier and can improve the understanding of key mechanisms driving disease development.


(Source: Emulate)

Mimetas – Leiden, Netherlands

Mimetas is a Dutch company also commercializing organ-on-chip devices and recently won the Dutch competition for Ideas From Europe. We wrote about them last year when they raised €4M for a global expansion of its tech developments.

Mimetas was also a corporate sponsor of the Organ on a Chip World Congress in Boston where they launched the OrganoPlate: an easy to use, versatile and affordable microfluidics‐based 3D culture plate.


Mimetas received the Innovation Award for their Organoplate Device Launch at the Boston Organ on a Chip World Congress this year (Source: Mimetas)

One could argue that through the existence of these companies, it is known that whole animal testing is still an essential part in evaluating the toxicological and pharmacological profiles of chemicals and pharmaceuticals.

Normally ADMET characteristics (Adsorption, Distribution, Metabolism, Eliminatio, and Toxicity) are essential test parameters for drugs which are determined in vivo with the use of animal models. These experiments are expensive and cumbersome, but essential to producing safe new medicines to the market for human use.


How can these devices be used in Drug Testing? (Source: Wyss Institute)

With drug toxicities it is also difficult, even almost impossible, to identify if there exists big differences in how the drug uptake is performed between animal models and humans. So these organ-on-chips which mimic basic organ-to-organ coupling, ADMET testing and drug screening could be all done in vitro instead of through the use of animal models.

But the real question is, how long will we have to wait for this to actually happen?

Here is a great Ted Talk about organs-on-chips by Geraldine Hamilton:

Feature Image Credit: Wyss Institute, Harvard.

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