From self-driving vehicles to companion and healthcare robots, some of the tech coming out of today’s research laboratories seems more like fiction than fact. However, industry and academia are working together to bring next-gen technologies to sectors like healthcare that could benefit from innovation-inspired change. In the medical realm, a movement to create human organs-on-chips promises to revolutionize the way society studies organ systems and the interactions between organs, as well as the way the health industry tests drugs and other products intended for human use.

An organ-on-a-chip is a miniature version of a human organ, such as skin, bone marrow, or a lung, intestine, or kidney, that contains live cells from the organ it simulates. An organ-on-a-chip replicates key functions of the actual human organ, opening doors for scientists and researchers to better study and understand the human body. Someday, this bioengineering movement could accelerate the clinical research process, reduce the hefty price tag associated with conducting clinical studies, and eliminate or reduce the use of animals in drug testing and development.

The Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University is one player in this space that harnesses biological design principles to develop engineering innovations in medicine, including human organs-on-chips. Wyss Institute describes these “essentially living” microchips as translucent, three-dimensional cross-sections of living organs that provide a literal glimpse into the inner workings of cells and tissues. Wyss researchers have also developed an automated instrument to link multiple chips together, mimicking the interconnected way organs work together in a human body. Importantly, the instrument allows realtime observation of these complex interactions, making it possible for scientists to analyze biochemical and physiological responses across 10 different organs.

Sensera, a designer and manufacturer of MEMS (micro-electromechanical systems) devices, is collaborating with the Wyss Institute to manufacture these microdevices. Specifically, Sensera provides the molds needed to manufacture the polymeric membranes that are assembled in organ-on-a-chip devices. The company adapted its traditional MEMS processes and implemented a stringent quality-management system in order to meet the specific demands of a biomedical application.

Organs-on-chips technology is in its early stages, and the repercussions for the medical space and the healthcare industry can be guessed at but aren’t entirely known. In one example of an application of this tech, startup company Emulate has licensed the Wyss Institute’s organ-on-a-chip tech and has created the Human Emulation System, which offers a new standard for predicting how a human may respond to diseases, medicines, chemicals, and foods. By providing a new standard for predicting human responses to various substances, these microchips could revolutionize many aspects of healthcare and medicine, from developing drugs and modeling diseases to further enabling and encouraging personalized medicine.

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