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Organs on a Chip

University of Miami engineers are simulating human organs on chips, improving potential applications in health and medicine.

BY Jessica M. Castillo, Andi Fuentes and CoE Department of Biomedical Engineering

Imagine simulating diabetes, lung cancer, or cardiac disease on a slice of material no bigger than a credit card. Though it sounds like science fiction, this work is a day-to-day reality for some University of Miami College of Engineering researchers.

In a revolutionary new approach, Ashutosh Agarwal, assistant professor of biomedical engineering, and of pathology at the Miller School of Medicine, is combining traditional engineering structures and materials, like metal or plastic, with stem cells from rodents and humans to create a heart, pancreas, and lungs that mimic the real organ, including how it functions both normally and when it is diseased. The chips, small enough to fit in your hand, are created through 3-D printing and 3-D milling with intricate, precise measurements.

Through this technology of recreating functional models of human physiology and pathology, UM engineers, collaborating with researchers from the Miller School of Medicine as well as industrial partners, are able to test pharmaceutical therapies, control the differentiation of stem cells and uncover mechanisms of human disease.

“Recreating human organ-level complexity in a dish, in both health and in disease, opens up several important applications,” says Agarwal. “We can now test drug molecules before running clinical trials, dive deep into disease mechanisms and create better stem cells for therapy.”

The significance of this research endeavor has been well recognized by federal funding agencies such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH), regulatory agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and has received interest from pharmaceutical companies. The biomedical engineers from the UM College of Engineering’s Physiomimetic Microsystems Laboratory (PML) have also featured their cutting-edge research at the annual eMerge Americas conference in Miami Beach.

Giovanni Lenguito and Siddarth Rawal from the PML displayed the lab’s ‘organs on a chip’ technology at the 2016 eMerge conference. Though the technology is currently being used primarily for diabetes research, these chips can “simulate a micro-human,” said Lenguito, a postdoctoral associate in the Department of Biomedical Engineering.

Each chip contains cells of one organ, explained Lenguito.

“Right now, we study them independently but we can then add in different organs and study the interactions of human cells whose nutrients are manipulated to replicate maladies such as diabetes or heart disease,” he added.

A $4.9 million grant from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) to Agarwal, who heads the PML, and his collaborators, is currently funding the lab’s research efforts into viable diabetes therapies.

Agarwal’s team has reported results of the work in the reputable journal Lab on a Chip. The design features of the chip are protected in a patent application that was converted to full filing by the University of Miami Innovation Office. In addition to the publication and patent application, Agarwal’s team is pursuing translational opportunities for the technology, thanks to a recent Wallace H. Coulter Commercialization Grant.

Click here to watch a video and learn more about Organs on a Chip.

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