Heart on a chip

Silicon wafers like the one shown here are used to create silicone-based “organ-on-a-chip” devices (via a photolithography process) to model human tissue. Credit: Anurag Mathur, Healy Lab

Developing a brand new drug is amazingly expensive, reaching 5B$ in many cases (it is about the same amount it takes today to develop a new manufacturing plant for chips) and a good portion of this cost goes into the testing of the drug. The normal protocol requires for animal testing but this is several cases is unsatisfactory because of the differences existing between the human target and the animals available for testing. n example is in the area of drugs targeting the electrical working of the human heart. The electrical conductivity is based on special channels existing in the heart muscular cells. These channels (though which ions flow) are specific of the human race and testing on animals does not ensure the similarity of results.

This is where this study from the University of California, Berkeley, comes in. Researchers have created a heart-on-a-chip by inventing a silicon substrate onto which heart cells can be implanted to assume a typical heart tissue configuration. The cells can be derived from stem cells of a patient so that one can test, in a lab, the effect of a drug on that patient's heart.

The study is part of a more general project, Tissue Chip for Drug Screening Initiative, supported by the US National Institute of Health to arrive at better (faster, cheaper and more accurate) organ-on-a-chip testing devices.

The chip contains microfluidic channels that mimic the exact architecture of the way cells in a heart tissue gets their nutrients (and are affected by drugs) and exchange signals. The differentiated heart cells are loaded in the chip in a similar way (according to the researchers) passengers will step onto an underground train and then will move inside based on the space available. This is where the chip design comes into play: it basically steer the cells to move into a heart tissue architecture.

The experiment has shown that after 24 hours from the introduction the cells started to beat at the usual 55- 80 beats per minute. After 30' of exposure to isoproterenol (a anti-bradicardic drug) inserter through the microfluidic channels the beat frequency increased to 120 beats per minute.

There is great hope to see these biochips playing a role in drugs testing as well as in specific person testing to select the most effective drug.

Author - Roberto Saracco

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