Apr 18, 2019

A Chip Off the Old Block

The expression “chip off the old block” has taken on new meaning. Scientists are using cells and tissue from the human body to create living 3D versions of human organs within see-through structures. These innovative ‘tissue chips,’ about the size of a thumb-drive, hold great promise for improving drug testing, researching diseases, personalizing medical treatment, and more. A few will soon be headed to the International Space Station (ISS), through a collaboration between the National Institutes for Health (NIH) and the ISS National Laboratory, in partnership with NASA. 


Tissue chips can host different cell and tissue types and mimic the intricate biological functions and responses of full-sized human organs such as the lungs, liver, and heart. Cells grown in tissue chips behave more like cells of a real organ than do cells grown in static cell culture dishes. That’s partly because the chips can be interwoven with miniscule channels lined with thousands of living human cells through which air, blood, nutrients, medications, and the like can flow. Researchers can even introduce a disease like cancer into a tissue chip to study disease progression. 

The space station is especially well-suited to advance research in this technology. Lucie Low is the Scientific Program Manager for the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS) at NIH. She explains:

“Microgravity causes changes in human physiology that directly translate to disease pathology here on Earth. In a couple of weeks in microgravity, we can model something that might take 10 or 15 years here on Earth to become even clinically relevant. So we can start understanding and uncovering disease pathologies much faster.”

Other tissue-chip-in-space study areas include respiratory system immune response, kidney function, blood brain barrier, musculoskeletal diseases such as osteoporosis, and immune system aging. Insights from these studies could help researchers understand diseases better, design treatments, and streamline testing of new candidate drugs. 

In the future, tissue chips could also advance precision medicine -- customized health care with disease treatment and prevention that takes into account a patient’s genes, environment, and body. Every individual reacts differently to cancers, genetic disorders, and infections. 

Low says, “Using tissue chips is a way to understand, in a tightly controllable model system, exactly what's happening to a specific person.”

This, in turn, could help researchers predict population responses. 

She says, “We could use tissue chips to pinpoint what it is about a particular group that's making their cancers act in a particular way towards a particular drug, or what kind of drug might be more useful for one population than another.” 

Scientists are even working on a ‘human-on-a-chip,’ in which tissue chips for various organs will be linked together to mimic whole body physiology. Researchers could then test potential effects of a substance like a drug across the entire body before testing in humans.

Low notes, “Essentially you throw all these cells together and provide them with the nutrients they need to ‘do their thing.’ It’s literally like taking a little bit of you, putting it into a ‘home away from home,’ letting the cells chat with each other, and looking at how they respond to different stresses and different drugs.”

Science truth can be stranger than science fiction.

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