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Blood clots on a chip may mean better life-saving drugs

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A device the size of a memory stick could shake up drug testing

Emulate Inc.

Emulate, Inc. wants to miniaturize our bodily functions. The tech company is commercializing Harvard-pioneered technology known as Organs-on-Chips — a method of simulating organ systems on tiny microchips — and it now has used the technique to turn deadly blood clots into chip form, as well.

Before a newly developed drug can be tested on people, researchers need to have a pretty good grasp of how the medication is going to affect the human body. That means the drug must go through numerous rounds of animal testing first — but a rodent or chimp’s response to a medication doesn’t always translate so smoothly in a person.

To get a more accurate picture of how human organs will react to a drug (without using actual human organs), Organs-on-Chips gather together a collection of thousands of cells in a chip the size of a memory stick to mimic the biological processes of individual organs. The aim is to test novel drugs on these tiny organs first, so as to produce a more predictive biological response to a drug and perhaps lessen the need for animal testing.

Getting a more accurate picture of how human organs will react to a drug

The Organs-on-Chips technique was originally developed by researchers at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University, who reduced major organs like hearts and lungs to chip size. Emulate has now used this method to recreate thrombosis — commonly referred to as a blood clot.

Appropriately dubbed Thrombosis-on-Chip, the platform models the various factors that lead to the formation of blood clots within the body. The chip also simulates the flow of blood and interaction of platelets, which help form clots. Clots stop a small wound from being life-threatening, but too much clotting can also block blood flow to organs like the brain, lungs and heart, with potentially-deadly consequences. Knowing how clots form will help drugmakers come up with better ways to treat conditions like deep vein thrombosis — which is part of what contributed to Serena Williams’ hospitalization in 2011, after a blood clot lodged in her lung. The chips allow drugmakers to test potential new therapies freely on "subjects" without harming any living creatures, cutting down on expensive animal testing.