Testing new drugs and treatments is challenging, expensive and time consuming. DARPA is investing $24 million in researching a promising bioprinting project that could create a “body on a chip” that simulates organ functions to shorten the testing process:
The 2-inch “body on a chip” would represent a realistic testing ground for understanding how the human body might react to dangerous diseases, chemical warfare agents and new drugs intended to defend against biological or chemical attacks. Such technology could speed up drug development by replacing less-ideal animal testing or the simpler testing done on human cells in petri dishes and perhaps save millions or even billions of dollars from being wasted on dead-end drug candidates that fail in human clinical trials.
“The question is whether can you have a better system to test these drugs, so that you can bypass cell testing and animal testing by going straight to miniature organs,” said Tony Atala, director of the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine in Winston-Salem, N.C.
Atala’s group has pioneered 3D printing methods that aim to build human organs with layer upon layer of cells. Their bioprinting methods lay down the cell layers along with artificial scaffolding to keep an organ’s structure intact as it takes shape a technique that has allowed the group to make tiny, less complex versions of full-size human organs.
“We’re printing miniature solid organs: miniature livers, hearts, lungs and vascular structures (blood vessels),” Atala said.
The tiny organs intended for the “body on a chip” project don’t represent fully functional hearts, livers and kidneys. Instead, they represent small chunks of human tissue from such organs connected together by a system of fluid channels that circulate blood substitute to keep the cells alive all placed on a 2-inch (5 centimeters) chip with sensors to monitor everything.
Having an artificial circulatory system means researchers can introduce biological or chemical agents into the “blood” to see how it affects the different organs. The system’s sensors would measure the temperature, oxygen levels, pH (how acidic or basic a fluid is) and other factors affecting the “body on a chip.”