Almost 19 million euro for development and study of organs-on-chips
It sounds futuristic, but it is possible: the creation of miniature organs of patients in order to study them and see how diseases develop and can be treated. This is what researchers of the LUMC, Twente University (UT), UMCG, TU Delft and the Hubrecht Institute wish to achieve in the next 10 years with a so-called Gravity subsidy of almost 19 million euro they were recently awarded by research funding organization NWO.
The growing of living human cells and tissue outside the body is done in 'organs-on-chips': tiny compartments on a silicon chip, on which the circumstances of the body are mimicked. This is done among others by means of tiny channels in the chips, so that minimal quantities of fluid can be precisely administered to feed the growing cells. The fluid is inserted and removed through miniature pumps and the behaviour of the cells can be measured with sensors. 'You actually create a small part of an organ,' according to professor of development biology Christine Mummery of the LUMC and the UT.
Research of cells of the heart, brain and intestines
Mummery is the manager of the project, to which five other renowned scientists – including Michel Ferrari (neurologist, LUMC), Albert van den Berg (nanotechnologist, UT), Hans Clevers (cell biologist, Hubrecht Institute), Cisca Wijmenga (human geneticist, UMCG) and Lina Sarro (nanotechnologist, TU Delft) - contribute. These researchers have been working together for a longer period of time on organs-on-chips as part of the joint-venture Human Organ and Disease Model Technologies (hDMT).
For this research they focus on heart, brain, intestinal and blood vessel cells, grown from stem cells of patients with certain afflictions. These cells will form the basis for the chip organs which function in the same way as organs in the human body, according to Mummery. 'We let the models of the heart beat like a real heart and the models of the intestines have their own bacteria. We recreate parts of the brain in cooperation with Erasmus MC. In this manner we can exactly recreate what goes wrong in those organs in certain afflictions.'
The researchers also study the effect of intestinal bacteria on the body. 'Cardiovascular diseases sometimes occur because the balance between the bacteria is disturbed.' In order to investigate this, the researchers not only grow three different chip organs. They will also link them and study their mutual influence. 'In this manner you can study for instance the mutual effects of healthy and sick organs and what happens to the brain or the heart when intestinal bacteria are disrupted.'
Miniature organs as an alternative to animal testing
The grown miniature organs are a good alternative to animal testing. 'What happens in test animals, is not always a good reflection of what happens in the human body. The heart of a mouse for instance beats 500 times per minute, but that of a human being only 60 times per minute. Certain parts of the brain are radically different in mice and the large intestine in mice functions differently from the one in human beings,' according to Mummery. 'We also think that certain effects and side effects of new medication can be tested better and faster and predicted in organs-on-chips.'
Do the miniature versions of the brain, the heart and the intestines also help to swiftly call a halt to diseases? 'That is still in the future,' says Mummery. 'Development of medication takes time. This research will take 10 years. First we will investigate how diseases come into being and then we will search for molecules which may influence these processes. We also want to investigate why certain people with a genetic disorder become seriously ill, whereas others with the same genetical disorder suffer a lot less.'