This body-on-a-chip mimics how organs and cancer cells react to drugs

Five chambers house different tissues, connected by channels that help simulate blood flow


BIOLOGICAL MICROCOSM  A new body-on-a-chip device can hold several different types of human cells and could help scientists quickly and accurately test the intended and unintended effects of drugs.


A new body-on-a-chip system could provide a more holistic view of drug effects than other devices of its kind.

Unlike traditional organ-on-a-chip devices that simulate a single organ (SN: 3/17/18, p. 13), the new setup contains five chambers to house different types of cells, connected by channels that circulate a nutrient solution to mimic blood flow. This is the first organ-on-a-chip scheme to examine how a drug and its chemical by-products affect target cells and other tissue at the same time, researchers report online June 19 in Science Translational Medicine.

“Until now, to be able to [measure] efficacy and toxicity in the same system, you had to go into an animal,” says James Hickman, a bioengineer at the biotech firm Hesperos, Inc., in Orlando, Fla., which developed the chip. A body-on-a-chip system with human cells could gauge drug effects more accurately, Hickman says. Using a patient’s own cells in the device may also allow scientists to test different drugs or drug combinations to determine the best treatment for that specific person.

MIX AND MATCH Unlike traditional organ-on-a-chip devices that simulate a single organ, this body-on-a-chip model has five chambers (filled with dye for visualization) that can be populated with different types of cells. That could allow researchers to test at the same time whether a drug has unanticipated side effects on various organs, like the heart or liver. C.W. McAleer et al/Science Translational Medicine 2019

Hickman and colleagues tested their body-on-a-chip by measuring the effects of different drugs on cancer cells, as well as heart and liver cells. In a device with bone marrow cancer cells, the drugs imatinib and diclofenac both curbed cancer-cell growth, but diclofenac also killed liver cells. In another setup, the drug tamoxifen knocked out breast cancer cells, but worked against drug-resistant vulva cancer cells only when administered with the blood pressure medication verapamil.

These experiments confirmed findings from past clinical trials of anticancer medications. That indicates that a body-on-a-chip can expose the helpful and harmful effects of drugs — and help fine-tune dosages — no test subject necessary.

Previously the staff writer for physical sciences at Science News, Maria Temming is the assistant managing editor at Science News Explores. She has bachelor's degrees in physics and English, and a master's in science writing.

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