The drug development process is a long road that involves not only many years of research and large piles of money, but also a great deal of pre-clinical and clinical testing. Animals used during in vivo testing are not always good human analogues, and humans of course are always at risk for potentially serious side effects should they participate in clinical trials. Recently, the use of in vitro testing with cell or tissue cultures has been increasing. However, even these cultures often use unorganized monolayers of cells that lack the structural and functional properties of an actual organ. Moreover, most tools don’t have the adequate resolution for recording extracellular and intracellular activity. Finally, standard cell cultures usually don’t scale up well for high-throughput testing.
Medgadget was recently invited to attend the imec Technology Forum (ITF) conference in Antwerp, Belgium, where imec, a non-profit R&D innovation organization, unveiled an advanced organ-on-chip device that could be used to improve the screening process of drug candidates. We had the opportunity to learn more about the device and see it in action on the conference’s demo floor.
The new lab-on-chip consists of two components. The first is a 16-well microfluidic well plate, developed in collaboration with the Netherlands-based Micronit Microtechnologies, that holds and moves the cells/tissue and drug candidate. The well plate contains a unique pattern of grooves and pillars to cause cells to grow in a structure similar to the actual organ. The other component is a high-density CMOS-based multi-electrode array (MEA) chip that imec developed in-house that handles the signal processing and analog-to-digital conversion. The chip contains 1,024 electrodes for each of the 16 microfluidic wells (a total of 16,384 electrodes), allowing for a resolution that can detect intracellular action potentials as well as extracellular signals. Each of the 16 wells can perform an individual assay, meaning different experiments can be performed in parallel for high throughput.
The platform could also be easily modified to reprogram tissues by applying a voltage to the cells. Such a technique can be used to differentiate stem cells in a very controlled arrangement.
Right now, imec is looking for pharmaceutical and biotech companies to help test and further develop their platform. We’re excited to see how this technology will be used!
Here’s an animation describing how the organ-on-chip works: