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Biomedical Optics & Medical Imaging

Organ-on-chips platform has promise for quicker, cheaper pharmaceutical research

Research from Linda Griffith’s laboratory group at MIT will be presented at SPIE Photonics West 2017.

27 December 2016, SPIE Newsroom. DOI: 10.1117/2.3201612.04

Determining a drug or vaccine’s efficacy and toxicity is a crucial and expensive step in discovering new cures and therapies and bringing them to market. Tackling the in-vitro/in-vivo gap — the process of moving out-of-body studies to in-body studies — is the focus of MIT’s Griffith Lab and the source for an invited presentation at Photonics West 2017.

SPIE recently visited Linda Griffith’s laboratory at MIT to hear more about her group’s research prior to her presentation at Photonics West 2017.

“There are many, many, reasons why we want to get rid of animals in research, from the standpoint of just animal welfare but also (because) animals are not little people and they don’t represent the true spectrum of human disease and human response to therapies,” Griffith said in explaining the thrust of her lab. “We’re essentially creating a small scale model of the basic functional unit of each organ.”

They are developing a “human-on-a-chip” to remove the animal tests and replace them with systems that mimic the cellular functions of the main organ systems. Utilizing advancements in 3D printing, tissue engineering, microfluidics, computer science, modeling, and cell biology, the team has created 7 of the 10 organs needed for a full human model.


The traditional path for most drugs is to start in a petri dish containing a single cell tissue culture, move to small animals such as rodents then on to primates, and finally on to clinical trials in humans. Along the path, every step could encounter results that deem the drug a failure and not suitable for the desired outcome.

Additionally, recent studies have shown that in cancer studies the average rate of successful translation from animal models to clinical cancer trials is less than 8%. Animal models are limited in their ability to mimic the extremely complex process of human carcinogenesis, physiology and progression. As Griffith noted, “mice are not little people.”

The organ-on-a-chip paradigm shows great promise in helping understand the toxicity and efficacy of a drug or treatment prior to human testing, effectively helping companies fail quicker and cheaper in their hunt for new treatments.

The DARPA-funded project of creating a fully connected 10-organ system is in its final year of funding. It has successfully connected seven organs-on-chips together and the early results are promising.

“A flat 2D cell culture does not do all the functions that your liver, your heart, your brain do so we are trying to create more complex in-vitro models to better predict in-vivo reactions to drugs or new cancer treatments,” postdoctoral researcher Collin Edington explained on a tour of the lab.

“We’re currently at the final year of the DARPA program, which the end goal is to create a 10-organ system. We have seven currently and those are lung, endo, gut, liver, pancreas, heart, and brain. For each system we have some of the core cell types and tissue structure to recapitulate the organ function.”

The lab looks very much like a traditional biology lab, but with a number of 3d printers and other fabrication tools in use.

“In order to achieve a lot of these goals we take a very multidisciplinary approach,” Edington said. “That involves integrating everything from sort of general mechanical and electrical engineering, biology, as well as a lot of photonics and optics for fabrication and rapid prototyping and 3D printing of biological scaffolds.”

Much of the work takes place outside of the lab, with computer scientists working on models and analysis to better understand the results and make more accurate chips. Using drugs with known outcomes helps the team translate their results and fine- tune their models.

While the funding is the final year it’s clear the lab intends to keep working in the field. Their upcoming invited presentation at Photonics West should provide insight to where the research is heading and how close they are to completing the 10-organ system.

Long term promise for personalized medicine is certainly on the team's mind Edington explained, "The hope is that one day we might have a personalized medicine platform in which a single patient’s skin cells could be modified into all the different cell types needed to populate one of these systems."

To learn more, attend the invited presentation at SPIE Photonics West, Monday 30 January, 3:30–4 p.m.