We may all have stem cells stored on chips to test drugs


Humans may one day have personal chips containing their own stem cells for labs to test – and scientists just need to draw a vial of blood to create it.

The development could revolutionize the idea of ‘personalized medicine’ by allowing doctors to test various drug options on the chip, without putting patients through months of painful and costly trial-and-error. 

In a major step, researchers have now successfully replicated a human intestinal lining using patient-derived cells to use to test gastrointestinal medications.

Organs on chips could also overhaul the drug approvals market: 30 percent of drugs do not make it past trials because they are too risky to test in humans, but testing them on replica organs could bypass the ethical minefield of putting people through the toxic trial.

‘Many of the low hanging fruits are now gone and we’re looking at treating much more complex diseases’ like Crohn’s, ovarian cancer and ALS, Dr Geraldine Hamilton, president and chief scientific officer at biotech start-up Emulate, Inc, said on Friday.

This chip could mean no patients will have to go through expensive and painful trial-and-error of drugs when they are ill or have a chronic condition. It stores a patient's stem cells, meaning it can be used to test a drug's effectiveness instead of the patient going through the tests

This chip could mean no patients will have to go through expensive and painful trial-and-error of drugs when they are ill or have a chronic condition. It stores a patient's stem cells, meaning it can be used to test a drug's effectiveness instead of the patient going through the tests

This chip could mean no patients will have to go through expensive and painful trial-and-error of drugs when they are ill or have a chronic condition. It stores a patient’s stem cells, meaning it can be used to test a drug’s effectiveness instead of the patient going through the tests

‘Patient-derived stem cells on chips will allow us to create personalized medicine.’

The chip is made out of a flexible polymer that features tiny channels that can be lined with thousands of living human cells.

Hamilton first started exploring organs on chips at Harvard University when she was lead scientist for biology inspired engineering, before she jumped ship in 2014 to Emulate, which is pioneering the FDA-backed endeavor.

In the last three years, since garnering tens of millions of dollars in grants, the technology development has accelerated at an ‘astronomical’ rate, she said, speaking at the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference in Austin. 

They have replicated heart, lungs, brain, and even placenta, all inside an aesthetically-pleasing clear cube with pink and blue lines the size of an AA battery.

Creating these disposable portals of patients’ cells is as simple as drawing blood.

‘The team can take patients’ blood and generate stem cells. These stem cells can then generate into a variety of stem cells like intestinal, brain or lung. These can be used to study disease,’ Hamilton explained.

‘It creates a home away from home for the cells. The biological complexity is incredible, but it also has the patient’s own genetic fingerprint.’

Today, her team revealed that, in collaboration with Cedars-Sinai Board of Governors Regenerative Medicine Institute, they managed to create a perfect replica of human intestinal lining.

The Cedars-Sinai team took samples of blood and skin cells from adults, and reprogrammed them into pluripotent stem cells.

They then used ‘special proteins and other substances’, according to the centers, to morph the cells into intestinal lining cells.

Each cell was an exact mirror of the genetic fingerprint of the person that had donated it.

Then, using those cells, they grew mini versions of each person’s intestinal lining, and funneled some of these cells into one of Emulate’s Intestine-Chips.

By injecting fluid into the chips, it caused them to develop and grow.

Testing it, it was identical genetically to the original donor. 

Pharmaceutical companies are racing to get involved in the product, with one partnership to be announced in the coming days. 

But the first on board is Johnson & Johnson, and they are betting big on organ chips as the future alternative to animal testing. 

‘Having the capacity to recapitulate allows us to slice through that in a very unique way that is essentially impossible to do in animals,’ Robert Urban, global head of J & J Innovation, said.  



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