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Monday, July 6, 2015

A Chip That Mimics Human Organs Is the Design of the Year 07-06

A Chip That Mimics Human Organs Is the Design of the Year

 Paola Antonelli, the senior curator of design and architecture at the Museum of Modern Art, added an intriguing object to the museum’s permanent collection. It was a clear plastic chip, no bigger than a thumb drive, and it could soon change the way scientists develop and test life-saving medicines.
Called Organs-On-Chips, it’s exactly what it sounds like: A microchip embedded with hollow microfluidic tubes that are lined with human cells, through which air, nutrients, blood and infection-causing bacteria could be pumped. These chips get manufactured the same way companies like Intel make the brains of a computer. But instead of moving electrons through silicon, these chips push minute quantities of chemicals past cells from lungs, intestines, livers, kidneys and hearts. 
Networks of almost unimaginably tiny tubes give the technology its name—microfluidics—and let the chips mimic the structure and function of complete organs, making them an excellent testbed for pharmaceuticals. The ultimate goal is to lessen dependence on animal test subjects and decrease time and cost for developing drugs. Last year, researchers from Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering started a company called Emulate, which is now working with companies like Johnson & Johnson on just this idea: pre-clinical trial testing. The company is currently working on incorporating Emulate’s chips into its research and development programs.
When the Harvard team first published its findings on the chips in 2010, the research was purely scientific. Now, five years later, it’s not only been inducted into the world’s foremost design collection, it’s also been named Design of the Year.very year, London’s Design Museum names one project as the year’s best. Past winners have included Zaha Hadid’s ethically-questionable (but stunning) Heydar Aliyev Cultural Centre in Azerbaijan, a lightbulb, and a government website. That a piece of medical equipment developed by biological engineers is this year’s winner isn’t just a nod to the design’s worthiness. It also says something about how views of what counts as “design” are changing.
To be sure, Organs-On-Chips is aesthetically brilliant. Antonelli, who recently called synthetic biology the most exciting frontier in design, described the chips as the epitome of design innovation. “In some lucky cases, the form is striking,” she says, referring to objects born out of scientific research. “In this particular case, added bonus, not only is the form striking, but so is the function—the idea behind the object.” Like a biological system, the chip’s form dictates its function, and its form is undeniably beautiful. But that’s not the end of the story. “Most people say form follows function, but it’s exactly the opposite in biology,” says Donald Ingber, a bioengineer and founding director of the Wyss Institute, which developed the chip and is working on commercializing it. 

“Actually, that’s not fair. It’s a dynamic relationship.” The structure of a biological system will inevitably affect the way it works, but Ingber says the design principle works both ways. “If you change the function, you can actually modulate the structure,” he says, noting how the diameter of blood vessels will adapt to decrease the tension in people who develop hypertension.

Working on the microscale requires precision. The chip effectively replaces the three-dimensional structures of an organ—the renal tubules of a kidney, the alveoli of the lungs, the veins in a liver—with tissue-lined microfluidic channels. Then it emulates the mechanics of those structures. For example, running air through a channel while using a vacuum to introduce a flexing motion will simulate the patterns of human breathing. The chip’s translucent polymer, in which the channels are encased, allows scientists to see what’s happening inside organs on the microscale. The prototypes can also be linked together to form a whole-body network of organs.

Organs-On-Chips embraces the most basic of design principles: efficiency. “Design in its greatest simplicity is minimizing any system down to its elements so as to have the greatest impact,” says Ingber. Like an increasing number of researchers, he understands that good science requires an understanding of good design. The principles that govern the two fields aren’t totally separate—in fact, design is a thread that runs through every field. It’s heartening when a big award reminds us of that.

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