Organs-on-Chip – Mimicking the in-vivo cellular microenvironment
During more than 100 years cell biologists have been culturing cells on flat and hard substrates, called Petri dishes. Plastics replaced glass, but the plates Julius Richard Petri invented in 1887 haven’t changed and are still widely used today. Although an instrumental tool for life-saving medical breakthroughs, like Sir Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin, the in-vitro environment provided by Petri dishes widely differs from the native environments the cells are accustomed to in the body. As a result, they often lose their original functions and are no longer suitable to be used as models to test for instance drug candidates. The pharmaceutical industry increasingly recognized this fact and turns more and more to new in-vitro models, such as organs-on-chip, that more accurately represent the milieu in the human body. Organs-on-chip are advanced in-vitro models that mimic the smallest functional unit of an organ. These systems no longer only inform about cellular functions, such as viability, migration, differentiation, but provide the controlled but more life-like environment to investigate specific organ functions, such as vessel contraction, gas exchange, inflammatory response to name a few.
The objective of the Organs-on-Chip Technologies Laboratory is to develop organs-on-chip, focusing on the lung and its diseases, in collaboration with the Pulmonary Medicine and the Thoracic Surgery Clinics of the Inselspital, Bern University Hospital. To achieve this goal, the group combines engineering, particularly microfluidics and microfabrication, tissue engineering methods and material sciences. Recently, we reported about a breathing lung-on-chip, an advanced lung alveolar model that functions to emulate the ultra-thin air-blood barrier including the three-dimensional cyclic mechanical strain generated by the breathing motions. This system is currently further developed in collaboration with the start-up AlveoliX, with the aim to revolutionize the preclinical market. Another aspect of the lung alveolar environment that is being developed in the OOC lab, a functional lung microvasculature. Lung cells seeded in a micro-engineered environment, self-assemble to build a network of perfusable and contractile microvessels of only a few tens of micrometers in diameter.
Next to the pharmaceutical applications, organs-on-chip are seen as having the potential to be used in precision medicine to test the patient own cells in view to tailor the best therapy for each patient. Furthermore, such systems have the significant potential to reduce the use of animal models in medical and life-science research. More on the Organs-on-Chip Technologies Laboratory.