Developed by researchers at MIT, the technique could eventually be used to generate personalised organs for patient transplant. “This was a fantasy 20 years ago,” Ron Weiss, MIT professor of biological engineering, tells us.
Today, as one of the lead researchers developing the technique, Weiss says that the advancement will change the way drug development is being done.
“The hope is definitely to be able to replace or at least augment animal testing,” he says. “Organ-on-a-chip [advancements] have become really quite exciting over the past few years.”
The technique was developed as the researchers were investigating if they could use stem cells to produce pancreatic beta cells to help treat diabetes patients.
Weiss, and Patrick Guye, a former postdoc in Weiss’ lab, took human induced pluripotent stem (IPS) cells and converted them into endoderm - one of the primary cell types in a developing organism.
After waiting two weeks the cells matured to form a liver “bud,” or small, rudimentary liver.
In the end, the researchers were able to produce all three of the primacy cell types: endoderm, mesoderm, and ectoderm.
“The fact that we are able to produce endoderm, mesoderm, and ectoderm gives us great hope that we can take each of these germ layers and hopefully grow any kind of tissue we want,” says Guye.
“A human organoid-on-a-chip, because it consists of human cells, would actually be more predictive about the effect of a drug candidate than animal testing,” explains Weiss.
It is also more efficient and “certainly more cost effective,” he adds.
Ultimately, the new technique will give researchers access to more detailed information.
“We can see in real-time how an organoid is responding to a drug,” says Weiss. “That’s something we could do using a microscope.”
Long term plans
According to Weiss, it will be really important (but also really cool) to do patient specific drug testing.
“It’s actually relatively easy to grow patient specific organoid-on-a-chip using our mechanism,” explains Weiss.
From there, researchers could ascertain how a drug, or a combination or drugs, would affect that patient.
Answering this question becomes particularly important in elderly patients who may be taking several medications at once.
“As people age, some are taking 10, 15, or 20 drugs together,” says Weiss. “Drug companies are not going to be able to test all these combinations.”
Weiss remains hopeful that personalized tissue for drug testing will be available in less than a decade - using human IPS cells and testing drugs will happen much sooner.
However, like anything new, the technique needs to be made more cost effective. Additionally, while there has been years of research into gathering data from animal studies, Weiss says they still need to understand how to get the best information from an organ-on-a-chip.
“We’re still improving the tech to get the best information from organoids,” says Weiss. “In terms of being able to improve our understanding of what’s taking place at the single cell level … I think it’s a really exciting development.”