WINSTON-SALEM, NC, Oct. 5, 2017 – Using the same expertise they’ve
employed to build new organs for patients, scientists at Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine and
colleagues have engineered micro hearts, lungs and livers that can potentially
be used to test new drugs. By combining the micro-organs in a monitored system,
the researchers aim to mimic how the human body responds to medications.
The goal of the effort, known as a “body-on-a-chip,” is to
help reduce the estimated $2 billion price tag and 90 percent failure rate that
pharmaceutical companies face when developing new medications. Drug compounds
are currently screened in the lab using human cells and then tested in animals.
But neither of these methods adequately replicates how drugs affect human
“There is an urgent need for improved systems to accurately
predict the effects of drugs, chemicals and biological agents on the human
body,” said Anthony Atala, M.D., director of the institute and senior
researcher on the multi-institution body on
a chip project, funded by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency.
published by Nature, the research team reports success engineering micro-sized 3D
organs, known as organoids, and connecting them together on a single platform to
monitor their function. While other teams have combined cells from multiple
organs in a similar system, this is the first reported success using 3D organ
structures, known to be higher functioning and to more accurately model the
The organ structures were made from cell types found in
native human tissue using 3D printing and other methods. Heart and livers were
selected for the system because toxicity to these organs is a major reason for drug
candidate failures and drug recalls. Lungs are the point of entry for toxic
particles and also for aerosol drugs, such as asthma inhalers.
The organoids are placed in a sealed, monitored system –
complete with real-time camera. A nutrient-filled liquid that circulates
through the system keeps the organoids alive and is used to introduce potential
drug therapies into the system.
The researchers first tested the organoids to ensure their similarity
to human organs. For example, the micro-liver received a high dose of a common
pain reliever – and then a different drug to counteract the toxic effects.
“The data show a significant toxic response to the drug as
well as mitigation by the treatment, accurately reflecting the responses seen
in human patients,” said Aleks Skardal, Ph.D., assistant professor at Wake Forest Institute
for Regenerative Medicine, who represented the multi-investigator team as the
lead author of the paper.
But more important than how an individual organ responds to
drugs is how the body as a whole responds. In many cases during testing of new
drug candidates – and sometimes even after the drugs have been approved for use
– drugs have unexpected toxic effects in tissues not directly targeted by the
screen a drug in livers only, for example, you’re never going to see a
potential side effect to other organs,” said Skardal. “By
using a multi-tissue
organ-on-a-chip system, you can hopefully identify toxic side
in the drug development process, which could save lives as well as millions of
scientists conducted multiple scenarios to ensure that the body-on-a- chip
system mimics a multi-organ response. For example, they introduced a drug used
to treat cancer into the system. Known to cause scarring of the lungs, the drug
also unexpectedly affected the system’s heart. However, a control experiment using
only the heart showed no response.
scientists theorize that the drug caused inflammatory proteins from the lung to
be circulated throughout the system. As a result, the heart increased beats and
then later stopped altogether, indicating a toxic side effect.
was completely unexpected, but it’s the type of side effect that can be discovered
with this system in the drug development pipeline,” Skardal said.
Scientists are working to increase the speed of the system
for large scale screening, and also to add additional organs.
“Eventually we expect to demonstrate the utility of a
body-on-a-chip system containing many of the key functional organs in the human
body,” said Atala. “This system has the potential for advanced drug screening
and also to be used in personalized medicine – to help predict an individual
patient’s response to treatment.”
patent applications comprising the technology described in the manuscript have
include: Sean V. Murphy, Ph.D., Mahesh Devarasetty, B.S., Julio Aleman, B.S., Ivy
Mead, M.S., Hyun-Wook Kang, Ph.D., Young-Joon Seol, Ph.D., Adam Hall, Ph.D., Thomas
D. Shupe, Ph.D., Sang Jin Lee, Ph.D., John D. Jackson, Ph.D., Shay Soker, Ph.D.,
Colin E. Bishop, Ph.D., James J. Yoo, M.D., and Anthony Atala, M.D., all of the
Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine; as well as Thomas Hartung,
Liang Zhao and Andre Kleensang, Bloomberg School of Public Health, Johns
Hopkins University; Mehmet R. Dokmeci, Yu Shrike Zhang, Su-Ryon Shin and Ali
Khademhosseini, Biomaterials Innovation Research Center, Harvard Medical