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Goodbye, Animal Models?

Chips aren't just for computers anymore, The Scientist says. Investigators are using organs modeled on small chip-like devices to research disease and test drugs. Some are even hoping these tools could eventually replace animal models.

"I think for most people, the goal is to replace animal testing and to carry out personalized medicine in a more effective way," Donald Ingber, the founding director of the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University, tells The Scientist.

The Wyss has about 15 organs modeled on chips so far, including the lungs, the gut, and the kidneys. They even have a new device called the airway-on-a-chip which models human bronchial epithelial cells instead of alveolar cells, The Scientist says. Ingber and his team use it to study the effects of smoking.

At Vanderbilt University, a group led by John Wikswo has created a chip to study the brain and the blood-brain-barrier, the article adds. And at the University of Southern California, biomedical engineering professor Megan McCain works with hearts-on-chips that actuall contain beating heart cells.

Dan Huh, a bioengineering professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and his colleagues have created an eye-on-a-chip with a blinking eyelid, The Scientist says. The eyelid's blinking motion maintains the ocular surface tissue more as it would be in a human eye, and allows the researchers to more accurately model conditions like dry eye or pink eye.

And researchers are not just limiting themselves to single organs. At Northwestern University, Teresa Woodruff and her colleagues linked five organ chips (a fallopian tube, a uterus, a vagina, an ovary, and a liver) together to model the female reproductive tract, The Scientist report.

"What [this] system allows us to do is move media in a way that brings in fresh nutrients and eliminates waste," Woodruff tells The Scientist. "That's what happens in the body." The researchers also added hormones to the liquid circulating in the system to mimic a menstrual cycle. And they're working on a male version of it, the article adds.

Now DARPA's getting in on the action. MIT biological engineer Linda Griffith is working on a DARPA-funded project to a create "bodies-on-chips" to connect ten different mini organ systems in one integrated circuit, The Scientist says.