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Microchip-based human organs could prove to be an animal testing alternative

By Simon Pitman+

04-Jun-2014
Last updated on 04-Jun-2014 at 17:08 GMT

A research team in the US say they have developed a technology using ‘organs on chips’ to mimic living cells, a step that could give way to alternatives to animal testing in cosmetics.

A team of scientists from the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, at Harvard University, say that the combined stem cell microchip technology could be harnessed to recreate complicated human functions such as the heart.

The scientists say that the ultimate goal would be to recreate the functions of an entire human body, based on the chip technology, although the initial research has just concentrated on developing a functioning human heart.

Model will likely evolve to be much more detailed

Likewise, the scientists say that the technology is only likely to recreate certain essential aspects of organs or body parts, and not the entire structure.

Currently the researchers are working on 15 different organs on chip projects.

The team have most recently been published in the peer reviewed journal Nature Medicine, and focuses on the scientists' model to investigate the cardiovascular disease Barth syndrome, an untreatable condition that mainly affects males.

Research into genetic heart condition

The research focused on the a mutated TAZ gene that causes the disease, with researchers using skin cells from two Barth syndrome patients, which were then manipulated into stem cells that carried the patients’s mutated TAZ genes.

The researchers state that the cells were then grown on chips lined with human extracellular matrix proteins that mimic their natural environment, tricking the cells into joining together as they would if they were forming a diseased human heart.

Ultimately the engineered tissues contracted very weakly, replicating the action of the heart muscle in a Barth syndrome patient, with further tests being carried out using genome editing techniques to mutate the TAZ into normal cells in order to confirm the tissue contraction was caused by the mutation.

Reconstructing organs leads to greater understanding

"You don't really understand the meaning of a single cell's genetic mutation until you build a huge chunk of organ and see how it functions or doesn't function," said lead researcher Kevin Kit Parker, PhD.

Although there is significantly more detail into the scientists' research into Barth syndrome, the basic model the scientists have created for this project is the one that they believe could also be translated into animal testing alternatives.

The researchers have been working on the organs on chips technology for over ten years now, and say that this latest development is a big stepping stone towards creating a wider range of applications that could include testing alternatives specifically designed for the cosmetics and pharmaceutical sectors.

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