Could a Lung-on-a-Chip Lead to a Mesothelioma Treatment Breakthrough?
by Nancy Meredith
NPR’s “Science Friday” recently hosted Harvard’s Donald Ingber, director of the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, to discuss the Institute’s quest to develop an organ-on-a-chip system. This seemingly science fiction technology could eventually replace the animal model for drug testing. It may also allow mesothelioma researchers to mimic the absorption of asbestos particles in a lung leading to a breakthrough in treating or preventing the disease.
Researchers at Wyss have already developed chips for various organs including lung, bone marrow, kidney, heart, and gut. Wyss announced last week that the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has given the center a five-year, $37 million grant that will allow them to develop a total of ten organs, and then link them together to mimic the interaction of the organs in the body to effectively create a human-on-a-chip. This human model will provide researchers with the ability to visualize how one drug interacts with all organs without endangering animals or humans.
Each chip is a clear, flexible polymer chip, about the size of a memory stick, which contains “hollow microfluidic channels lined by living human cells.” These transparent devices can replicate the responses of a living organ giving researchers a clear view into the inner-workings of the body.
The lung-on-a-chip, for example, stretches and relaxes just like human, functioning lungs. When researchers introduced bacteria and toxins into the lung, scientists were able to witness the absorption of the chemicals into the bloodstream. This type of visual access to the functioning of the organs could someday allow researchers to quickly eliminate an experimental pleural mesothelioma drug when they see that the drug is toxic.
These chips were initially developed through government funding to help safeguard Americans from deliberate chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear threats. In addition, the chips are designed to protect against emerging infectious diseases. These chips allow researchers to rapidly assess responses to drugs by “providing critical information on their safety and efficacy,” according to the Wyss announcement. The government has identified the chips as a system that can drastically accelerate the drug development process.
Ingber said on the NPR show that his team has been able to get “exciting results” with the chips. For researchers and physicians who have dedicated their careers to finding an effective treatment for pleural mesothelioma, a pulmonary cancer caused by asbestos exposure, this latest technology could be the breakthrough that could a make difference in their ongoing research.