This chip full of cells and fluids mimics the mechanical and
biochemical behaviors of a human lung. In the future it may
help scientists conduct more accurate drug screenings.
In the past few years scientists have been building organs on chips—microfluidic devices seeded with human cells and designed to function like miniatures of real-life lungs, hearts and kidneys. Scientists hope these mock organs will eventually help to understand and treat diseases, but first, they have to get these fake organs, well, sick. Researchers at Harvard recently reported some success: they have given their chip a lung condition.
The model lung involved in the study looks less like a breathing apparatus than a translucent domino hooked up to tiny tubes, through which air and a blood-like fluid circulate, keeping the cells within fed and aerated. Scientists used it to test a chemotherapy drug used in the treatment of certain cancers that has a potentially fatal side effect called pulmonary edema, which causes fluid to accumulate in the lungs and can lead to respiratory failure.
To demonstrate the toxic effects of the drug, researchers administered it to the lung chip in a dosage analogous to those received by cancer patients. The result in the fake lung was similar to that in real lungs: fluid leaked from the “blood” vessel into an air sac on the chip and caused clots.
Although the chip-cum-lung is a simplified version of a functioning organ, scientists hope it will one day prove useful for medical testing. Unlike lab rats, the chips use actual human cells in order to test their reactions. And unlike the petri dish, which shows these reactions on a cellular level, the chips can show the effects on an entire organ. Having given their chip edema, the researchers may now be able to use it to find ways to prevent it in patients.
Image and animation credit: Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, Harvard University