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Bioengineers develop new methods to screen drugs, model diseases

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MARCH 12, 2015

A research team led by a campus bioengineering and material sciences professor has developed a chip with the capacity to simulate the human heart.

The team of researchers — led by bioengineering department chair Kevin Healy — has created a device that could potentially make the process of testing drugs easier and more accurate.

The central part of the chip holds the cell channel, which acts as a barrier mimicking the perimysial collagen fiber spacing of the heart. This central channel is flanked by two blood vessel-like channels, through which scientists can flow nutrients in the form of a blood surrogate. The channels are connected by small barriers that mimic endothelial cells in the body.

According to Peter Loskill, a postdoctoral researcher who worked on the chip, the cardiac tissue is the size of a human hair.

Doctors will potentially be able to test certain doses and medications by taking a few cells from a patient to develop a personalized chip with the corresponding organ cells. The chip would allow for more effective doses to be prescribed.

“The big deal here is having a dude on a chip,” said Harvard University bioengineering and applied physics professor Kit Parker, who was not involved in the study. “The advantage is that you can measure the toxicity on the chip, as opposed to the person.”

Animals are commonly used for drug testing and disease modeling. If this technology moves forward, it has the capacity to complement or even completely replace animal testing.

“Right now the gold standard (for drug testing) is animal models, which do not mimic human physiology,” said Anurag Mathur, a postdoctoral researcher who worked on the chip. He said that because of this, a lot of drugs researched by the pharmacy industry fail during clinical trials when tested on humans.

Mathur sees this technology being used in three different applications: screening potentially risky drugs, developing disease treatments and personalizing medicine.

“The heart on a chip (is) in a dynamic environment where they can control the flow and the stress on the cell,” said UCLA assistant professor of medicine Reza Ardehali, calling the research a “significant step forward” in the field of drug testing.

The lab is now working on replicating such success for a potential liver and fat chip.

Loskill hopes that combining different organ systems will show “promising results” when looking at a given drug’s toxicological effects.

“Right now, we have a human heart on the chip, but we can easily put more than one organ. Using some changes, we can integrate more than one organ on this platform,” Mathur said. “That’s the beauty of stem cells.”

Contact Lenin Silva at 

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MARCH 12, 2015


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