As global health is a matter of concern today, people are finding ways to discover drugs that that are effective against diseases. But finding out how our body reacts to those drugs is of greater concern. However, developing drugs that are cost effective is difficult especially when there are too few means to ascertain whether they are safe for human trials.
One way is to simulate a body part using physical models. However, to attain a real life simulation we need real cells. But human cells are not used to the environment outside the body. So we need to set the right environment. Thus the concept of “Organ-on-a-chip”, which is a combination of both cells and physical models, has become popular.
What is an OC?
An organ on a chip is a 3D chip, generally few centimeters in size that can simulate the activities of a body part. It has channels through which fluid can flow and porous membranes in which real cells can be grown thereby simulating the functions of a real organ. Techniques from computer chip manufacturing industry make it easy to produce such structures at a scale comparable to the cells.
Lung on a cell – an experiment
Let’s consider the human lung as an example. The OC model of the lung has chambers which carry air and fluid containing ions which resemble blood in composition. Culture cells are grown in the membrane connecting the air and blood chamber (human alveolar cells, endothelial on blood side and epithelial on air side). The side channels are connected to vacuum which performs regular expansion and compression.
Using this model, an experiment was conducted in which bacterial cells were introduced into the air chamber and human white blood cells were introduced in the blood (artificial) stream. It was observed that the white blood cells sensed the infection, crossed the membrane and engulfed the bacteria.
Such models are feasible using the present technology. A number of such components (say lung-on-a-chip, heart-on-a-chip, etc) can be clubbed together to create a living organism. This has paved way for a whole new technology. Researchers are even working on building a human-on-a-chip.