Organs-on-Chips: An Alternative to 3D Bioprinting?

July 28. 2014. 3 mins read

While 3D Printing has attracted a great deal of attention from investors because of high growth projections, 3D Bioprinting has attracted investors because of its futuristic appeal. Some companies involved in 3D Bioprinting are raising eyebrows with their lofty ambitions, like private company Modern Meadow which is looking to 3D Print leather, or publicly traded Organovo (ONVO) which hopes one day to be able to print human organs for transplant. The reality is though, that neither of these companies are anywhere near being able to 3D Bioprint at a size or economic scale to realize these aspirations.

A more near-term use for 3D Bioprinting is to create small samples of organ tissues that can potentially be used for drug testing. Organovo plans to launch its upcoming 3D Human Liver Tissue before the end of 2014, and there are many other companies involved in 3D Bioprinting that could look to enter this space as well. While the idea of 3D Printing human organ tissues for drug testing sounds like a good one, there are other types of technology applications that could serve the same purpose. One such technology is referred to as “organs-on-chips”.


Human “organs-on-chips” are composed of a clear, flexible polymer about the size of a computer memory stick, and contain hollow microfluidic channels lined by living human cells.


These 3D organ and tissue models allow researchers to recreate the physiological and mechanical functions of the organ, and have the potential to eliminate the need to use animals for drug development and toxin testing. While saving animals has a certain feel-good element to it, it is more likely the cost savings that will appeal to pharmaceuticals looking for alternatives to existing drug testing methods. Scientists test potential pharmaceuticals on animals because it is too dangerous to perform initial tests on humans. The problem with this method is that more often than not, the predictions gleaned from animal tests will fail when a compound is tested on humans.

Emulate: A New “Organ-On-Chip” Spinout from Harvard

Harvard University’s Wyss Institute is as an alliance among Harvard’s Schools of Medicine, Engineering, and Arts & Sciences which engages in high-risk research that leads to transformative technological breakthroughs. Wyss has claimed to have developed more than 10 different “organs-on-chips”, and to have created an instrument that will fluidically link all the organs together to mimic whole-body physiology – a so-called “human on a chip”:

Source: Wikipedia

In October of last year, the Wyss Institute announced a collaboration with AstraZeneca to leverage the “organs-on-chips” technologies to better predict the safety of drugs in humans. The technology seems to be getting closer to being commercially viable, as just today the Wyss Institute announced that they have spun out a startup company called “Emulate” which has taken in $12 million in Series A funding led by venture firm Nanodimensions along with participation from Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and the founder of the Wyss Institute, billionaire Hansjorg Wyss. Emulate expects the funding to last about 2 years while the company looks to move into personalized medicine by using sample cells from a patient to construct patient-specific organs on its chips.


Emulate isn’t the only player in this space though. A Netherlands based startup named Mimetas has commercially available “organs-on-chips” called Organoplates and recently partnered with Belgian biotech Galapagos to further develop these products. Several other startups are also competing in this space as well, however, Emulate’s strong backing and intellectual pedigree make it one to watch in the coming years as “organs-on-chips” are tested for their economic viability by the major players in the pharmaceutical industry in a continuing bid to reduce costs.


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