Micro-engineered organs-on-chips can lead to personalised medical treatments

Researchers who created living human organs on microchips that may lead to personalised healthcare and the development of new lifesaving drugs, have said the technology will be rolled-out to a level which can have a major impact on society.

Ten different microchips, including those that mimic liver, gut, kidney and bone marrow have been created by a team at the Wyss Institute.

The development, which has taken place over three years and started with a lung on a chip, could help to assess the predictive safety of new drugs, chemical and cosmetics.

In a bid to increase the usefulness of the technology, so it can be used for wider testing and potentially help the development of drugs, it is now set to be commercialised.

If successful it will also help to reduce the need for animal testing.

Organs-on-Chips may also be able to be developed from an individual’s stem cells to potentially create personalised treatments in the future.

The organs-on-chips are crystal clear, flexible polymers that are around the size of a USB flash drive.

They contain hollow channels which are made using computer microchip manufacturing techniques.

The channels are then lined by living cells and tissues which mimic the organs.

The team has also developed an instrument to automate the organs and link them together by a flowing medium that mimics blood – which can help to replicate the human body’s response.

When the original lung chip was developed in 2010 Wyss technology development fellow Dan Huh said: “We were inspired by how breathing works in the human lung through the creation of a vacuum that is created when our chest expands, which sucks air into the lung and causes the air sac walls to stretch.

“Our use of a vacuum to mimic this in our microengineered system was based on design principles from nature.”

The decision by the Institute to commercialise the technology led the researchers to refine the chips by testing existing drugs and modelling various human diseases on the chips.

Wyss Institute Founding Director Don Ingber said the technology is now “poised to have a major impact on society.”

If the chips can be successfully commercialised to the level where they can be mass-manufactured there is a greater chance of it being used to help improve the health of those who need it.

Featured image courtesy of Harvard’s Wyss Institute 

The sixth extinction: Why we need to protect endangered species to save ourselves

We are in the early stages of the Earth’s sixth mass extinction, according to a study from Stanford University. And while previous extinctions have been caused by natural planetary transformations or asteroid strikes, it seems that humans may be responsible for this one.

Biologists have drawn a chilling connection between the decline of animal populations and the knock-on effects it could have on human health – with risks including plague epidemics in densely populated areas.

Up to 33% of all vertebrates species are estimated to be threatened or endangered globally. Now a team of scientists, led by Stanford biology Professor Rodolfo Dirzo, has revealed how, through a complex chain of cascading effects, human lives in large numbers could be at stake if we don’t ensure the survival of these animals.


“We tend to think that extinction is a phenomenon that will affect a particular population,” says Dirzo, who coined the term ‘defaunation’ describing the decline of animals as a consequence of human impact. But if one animal population is driven to local extinction, the effects on the ecosystem could scale up all the way to a global level, the scientist warns.

Experiments conducted by Dirzo and his colleagues in Kenya have studied how the absence of large animals such as zebras, giraffes and elephants impacts on the ecosystem. They observed that rather quickly, affected areas will be overwhelmed with rodents as seeds and shelter from grass and shrubs become more easily available and the risk of predation drops.

Consequently, the number of rodents doubles – as does the number of disease-carrying ectoparasites they harbour. Many of the pathogens the researchers found on the rodents in Kenya pose a threat to human health, including the bacteria that cause plague.

This could cause a disastrous chain of effects, particularly in densely populated areas, says Dirzo. “Where human density is high, you get high rates of defaunation, high incidence of rodents, and thus high levels of pathogens, which increases the risks of disease transmission.”


So what can we do to prevent an apocalyptic scenario of human populations being eradicated by rodents carrying the plague?

Defaunation is driven directly by hunting, poaching and illegal trade of animals and indirectly by changes in land use, which can reduce or isolate natural habitats, preventing native species from maintaining healthy populations. In an earlier study Dirzo and colleagues estimated that 50% of all mammal species could be placed under serious risk of extinction in the next 200 years.

Finding a solution is tricky, the scientist admits. Immediately reducing rates of habitat change and overexploitation would help. But these approaches need to be tailored to individual regions and also need do address rural poverty which often drives hunting, poaching and illegal trade.

While reforestation projects are already working to reverse the catastrophic effects of declining rainforests, Dirzo says we need to create a similar process of ‘refaunation’ – the restoration of endangered animal species and their habitats.

Clearly, such a process will take time and significant changes in human habits and activities. But maybe the awareness that the ongoing mass extinction will not only affect large, charismatic animals but could also wipe out human populations will provide the incentive to spur change.