'Gut-on-a-Chip' Mimics Human Intestine

A team of researchers at Harvard University’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering recently announced a milestone in the development of a new biomedical technology that may make animal models a phenomenon of the past. The device, known as the “gut-on-a-chip,” simulates the microenvironment of the human intestine by creating a miniaturized three-dimensional scaffold that supports growth and development of a patient’s own cells—even including microbes essential for digestion and normal physiology.

The research team, led by Wyss Institute director Donald E. Ingber, is focusing on creating a system that can address fundamental problems in modern pharmacology and therapeutic research.

“The big inspiration really was being aware of the fact that there is a major crisis in getting drugs through development and clinical trials,” said Ingber. “There is also the problem that animal testing really doesn’t accurately predict what happens in humans.”

The device—which consists of a single layer of human intestinal epithelial cells that grow on a porous, flexible membrane—recreates the intestinal barrier. With proper implementation, the system can mimic the peristaltic motion of the digestive tract and facilitate the growth of valuable intestinal microbes within the luminal space.

“Normally, we have billions of bacteria living in the lumina of our gut and they are absolutely critical for survival, including absorption and metabolism,” said Ingber. “With the simulated flow and peristaltic-like motion, we were able to keep the cells alive—which means we can start doing toxicity testing and also look at complex disease processes in which the microbiome plays an essential role.”

By recapitulating human diseases with “gut-on-a-chip” technology, scientists may soon be able to pursue a more comprehensive understanding of cellular pathways and medical prognoses, according to Ingber. Amongst other gastrointestinal diseases, this technology may provide valuable insight into the mechanics underlying Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.

“Not only could this drug be used in development of new treatments for many gastrointestinal diseases, but it could also be used to test mechanisms for drug delivery,” said Sujata Bhatia, Assistant Director for Undergraduate Studies in Biomedical Engineering. “I also believe that because this tool does such a nice job of mimicking the actual environment of the intestine, it could be an amazing tool for both biomedical students and biomedical engineers.”

Though this is a significant breakthrough for the biomedical field, Ingber says this is only the beginning.

“We are looking into a lung-on-a-chip and a beating heart-on-a-chip and [chips] that could link many organs together,” said Ingber. “This is the future challenge and we are very excited to look into that.”

—Staff writer Fatima Mirza can be reached at fmirza@college.harvard.edu.

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