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Micro-organ Models

Peter L. Slavin and David F. Torchiana discuss the research value of micro-organ models.

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Some of the biggest thinkers in biomedical research today are actually thinking quite small. In labs at Massachusetts General Hospital, across the country and around the world, biologic processes are taking place in miniature, as scientists artfully craft tiny man-made organ systems that carry nutrients, grow cells, build tissue, pump fluids, digest food and breathe. Polymer chips, the size of large postage stamps, serve as platforms on which these microsystems can be erected. The chips under development house microfluidic environments that support living cells, which in turn mimic the function of the heart, lungs, kidneys, liver, gut and even bone marrow—biomedicine in a whole new dimension.

During the past two decades, the prospect of using miniaturization to study complex biological processes has interested researchers from various scientific disciplines. Borrowing micromanufacturing and nanotechnology concepts largely from the computer and electronics industries, scientists have discovered the benefits of working in environments that simulate, in a way that’s simpler and more controlled, the vastly more complex organs and systems found in humans.

Several years ago in Proto we explored the creation of a very tiny, very powerful “lab on a chip” that could capture specific rare circulating tumor cells, or CTCs, from a sample of blood. Several generations of CTC chips later, this process has improved to the point at which rare cancer cells in a blood sample can be isolated and analyzed to determine whether a cancer has spread or to reveal whether a specific therapy is working.

In this issue of Proto, we offer a different take on the “on a chip” concept, examining fascinating micro-organs and micro-organ systems that are encased in plastic and teeming with biologic activity. We also look at efforts to integrate multiple organ microsystems to create a human-on-a-chip model that might prove to be a more effective, safer, faster and lower-cost tool for investigating how diseases progress and for drug development, drug toxicity screening and disease prevention. On-a-chip technology might even reduce—or in some cases, replace—animal testing.

While it’s too early to say whether the organ-on-a-chip concept will be a research game changer, what is clear is that the field is expanding rapidly, propelled by the promise that tiny technology could one day reap big benefits.

Peter L. Slavin, M.D.
Massachusetts General Hospital
David F. Torchiana, M.D.
CEO and Chairman
Massachusetts General Physicians
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