Harvard’s Lung-on-a-chip wins Design of the Year

Lung-on-a-chip is what they call it – Harvard’s new innovation that won Design of the Year from London’s Design Museum. This new technology has the potential to replace animal testing in pharmaceutical companies. This device was created by the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University.  It is basically a small transparent device that tries to mimic the properties of the human lung. It contains human tissue structures and is flexible enough to accommodate both the stretching and relaxation mechanisms observed during human respiration.


The Lung-on-a-chip, a transparent device that simulates the chemical and mechanical performance of human lungs [Courtesy: theguardian.com]

Tubes connected to a main block carry airway cells from the air sac and human capillary blood vessel cells which are separated by a flexible porous membrane. On the side of the membrane that contains the airway cells, there is a layer of lung cells distributed on top of the membrane. On the other side of the membrane, there is a layer of capillary cells.

Lung-on-a-chip membrane

A deep look into the channels of the Lung-in-a-chip. A membrane separates an air channel (blue top) and a blood channel (red bottom). The sides of the membrane for these channels are covered with lung cells and capillary cells respectively [Courtesy: www.wyss.harvard.edu]

The breathing of the human lung is simulated on the Lung-on-a-chip with the help of cyclic suctions in the side channels. With this setting, the effect of various human conditions can be observed on the Lung-on-a-chip through a microscope thanks to the transparency of the device.

In one study conducted by the Wyss Institute, bacteria were introduced to the air channel. This serves to simulate an infection or disease in a human lung. In the blood channel, white blood cells were introduced. It was observed that the white blood cells went across the central membrane and into the air channel where they attacked the bacteria. This is typical of how the white blood cells behave in a human body.

Animals such as dogs and mice are not necessarily predictive of humans when it comes to drug testing. This makes drug testing a failure a significant number of times. Not only does the Lung-on-a-chip avoid animal testing, it is also much cheaper. It is also much easier to use and its usage requires little or no training. It is also small so little amounts of drug is need for testing.

To take it one step further, other organs have also been simulated such as the kidney and liver. And then another step even further was taken whereby these organs-on-a-chip were connected to each other to form a network. This can be used to perhaps simulate the effect of a certain drug moving from one organ to the next, among other things.

Will the Wyss Institute be able simulate the human brain and beat robots to singularity? “We won’t be able to model consciousness, or the effect of gravity on your joints,” says Ingber. But can it still be done anyway?

Source: The Guardian