Researchers Building Microchips That Mimic Live Human Organs

Robert Lucian Crusitu/

The Human Organs-on-a-Chip bested 75 other finalists in the 2015 Design of the Year.

The Human Organs-on-a-Chip, designed to revolutionize clinical testing and research, bested 75 other finalists in the 2015 Design of the Year by the Design Museum in London. The contenders included the Google self-driving car, Norway’s new banknotes, and Rodarte’s covetable couture Star Wars gowns.

Human Organs-on-a-Chip acts like lab surrogates for actual human organs, like lab test animals. Invented by Donald Ingber and Dan Dongeun Huh at Harvard University’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, these special chips, about the size of a computer memory stick, recreate the biochemistry and the mechanical function of human organs in a piece of rubber.

Etched with hollow channels designed to be lined with actual living human cells (harvested stem cells), the translucent chips have specific patterns that correspond with the microarchitecture of a specific human organ. They are flexible so scientists can apply mechanical force to mimic the movement of organs. The lung-on-a-chip, liver-on-a-chip, and gut-on-the chip were reviewed by Design Museum’s award committee.

“Its selection as Design of the Year 2015 also signifies a desire to recognise and award design that can significantly impact society now and in the future,” said curator Gemma Curtin.

Cheaper, faster, more accurate and more humane

In today’s model, pharmaceutical companies spend about US $1 billion to get a drug approved—a process that usually takes about 10 years. The usual drug lab tests involve either observing cells on a petri dish, or using lab animals. The accuracy rate of these methods are questionable because petri dishes do a poor job replicating human environments and the physiology of lab animals do not exactly mirror human physiology.

Once fully developed, Human Organs-on-a-Chip promises a testing methodology that is cheaper, faster, more accurate, and more humane. They could have an game-changing impact on the medical, research, pharmaceutical, and even the cosmetics industry, which is notorious for testing beauty and personal care products on animals who suffer and die in the process.

Personalized treatment

But perhaps most exciting are the invention’s potential applications in personalized medicine (aka “precision medicine”). The devices would allow doctors to test a drug treatment based on an individual’s unique physiology, by injecting their cells into these microchips. The hope is to create a better gauge of a drug’s efficacy based on one’s unique chemical make-up.

The Wyss Institute’s multi-disciplinary team has translated 10 organs to microchips so far. They have also developed a system—not quite a robot (yet)—where they can see the chain reaction of chemicals on multiple organs.

For example, asthma medication taken via an inhaler can be simultaneously tested on microchips that recreate the functions of one’s lungs and show its effects on the heart, bones, kidney, gut, and liver—anticipating any pernicious side effects.

Last year, Harvard created a start-up called Emulate, Inc., to accelerate the microchip’s commercialization into the market. And last month, it announced a strategic partnership with the Johnson & Johnson Innovation Center that will deploy Organs-on-Chips across the multinational’s drug research activities.

The Human Organs-on-a-Chip as well as other Design of the Year finalists, are on display at the Design Museum until March 2016.

(Image via Robert Lucian Crusitu/