Organ-on-a-chip Device — Scientific Delusion or “Gold Mine”?

          It may sound delusional to people from decades ago that different types of organs can grow on 3D plastic chips for various animals like mice and humans — probably people nowadays will find it hard to believe too. This article will introduce organ-on-a-chip (OOC), an cutting-edge technology. It has a wide range of application potentials, which could be the next game-changer in the pharmaceutical development & toxicity testing process and bioengineered-product supplying industry (Low et al., 2021).

            Organ-on-a-chip (OOC) is a simple single cell-type artificial organoid that can mimic activities, mechanics, disease pathophysiology and physiological responses of the entire organ in vitro (Tuong et al., 2020). A wide range of organ cells has been successfully cultured in OOC, like brain, liver, intestine, even tumour (Low et al., 2021). OOC is a delicately bioengineered device: a multi-channel 3-D microfluidic cell culture chip that provides necessary structural and physiological support for the cell cluster located in the middle (Horejs, 2021).

            Drug development is slow and costly, and about 80% of the investigational drugs fail in clinical testing (Low et al., 2021). Frequent discordance between animal and human studies has been an obstacle to successful medicine development. The most common model animal used in the preclinical human drug development is the lab mouse (Mus musculus), and its phylogenetic distance from the human is a driving force for a more predictive model (Low et al., 2021). Using OOC devices that culture human organ cells, the drug effects test should be more informative and accurate. To conclude, OOCs are likely to become valuable additions to conventional mouse experiments.

            Looking at the vast potential in OOC technologies, it can be devastating to notice that the research is still in its infancy and the OOC design varies from lab to lab. When the chips are widely used in the pharmaceutical industry remains unclear. Yet where there are no rules, new rule-makers are bound to arise. The immaturity in technology brings a considerable niche for start-up entrepreneurship based on a lab-validated protocol for chip production. The optimized chip can be potentially translated into the next IP that may change the industry, whether it is brain-on-a-chip, liver-on-a-chip that functions better than the very few competitors on the market, or vascular-on-a-chip that wins the whole cake.

            There is no doubt that OOCs can function as “cell culture analogues” in the early stages of preclinical trials. However, as the OOC device has limited space to culture the cells, the systematic influence of a specific drug/toxin is beyond its capability to study. The human body is a highly synchronized system—how reliable the results of a single type of organ cell can provide remains controversial (Horejs, 2021). Of course, with the emergence of organ-on-a-chip, system-on-a-chip is not far away. Worldwide investment from scientific funding bodies has enabled the development of a multitude of 3D tissue models, including complex multi cell-type, multi-organ microfluidically integrated systems (Low et al., 2021). The tissue chip has undoubtedly become one of the hottest topics in biomedical engineering. The question is: how practical it is for industries to develop robust, reproducible, reliable OOC platforms?

Reference

Horejs, C. (2021). Organ chips, organoids and the animal testing conundrum. Nature Reviews Materials6(5), 372-373.

Low, L. A., Mummery, C., Berridge, B. R., Austin, C. P., & Tagle, D. A. (2021). Organs-on-chips: into the next decade. Nature Reviews Drug Discovery20(5), 345-361.

Tuong, Z. K., & Clatworthy, M. R. (2020). Organ immune responses—don’t forget the structural cells. Nature Reviews Nephrology16(10), 570-571.