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Honey, I shrunk the body: Going small to fight biological weapons

First came laboratories on a chip — now comes the human body on a chip

One of the keys to responding to terrorist attacks that may come in the form of chemical or biological weapons is the availability of effective antidotal measures. University researchers are developing a novel body-on-a-chip technology as a countermeasure against viruses like Ebola or deadly chemicals like sarin and ricin.

The Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center project is building a miniaturized system of human organs to model the body’s response to harmful agents and to develop potential therapies. According to the researchers, this approach has the potential to reduce the need for animal testing, which is not only slow and expensive, but its results are not always applicable to humans.

Faster, more accurate testing

Anthony Atala, M.D., director of Wake Forest’s Institute for Regenerative Medicine, told EMS1 the project addresses the need to quickly assess the effects of potentially harmful agents — as well as to develop antidotes to chemical and biological weapons.

“Testing the agents in human tissue, rather than in animals, is expected to provide faster, more reliable results,” he said.

Advances in micro-tissue engineering and micro-fluidics technologies have made the concept of a body-on-a-chip possible. Wake Forest is using a unique 3D printer to print the organoids onto the chip.

These technologies are based on similar achievements in the electronics field, but rather than miniaturizing electronics on a chip, the Wake Forest researchers are miniaturizing human organs, monitoring devices and laboratory processes.

How does it work?

It works like this. Human cells are used to create tiny organ-like structures that mimic the function of the heart, liver, lung and blood vessels. These structures are placed on a 2-inch chip, and then connected to a system of fluid channels and sensors to provide online monitoring of individual organs and the overall organ system.

A circulating blood substitute keeps the cells alive and can be used to introduce chemical or biological agents, as well as potential therapies, into the system. Hollow channels automatically guide the toxins or therapies that are being evaluated from one tissue to the next; sensors then measure real-time temperature, oxygen levels, pH and other vital parameters.

The homeland protection benefits of this technology are clear.

"Whether a chemical or biological attack occurs abroad or in the U.S., the chip has the potential to affect the ability of the U.S. government to respond by speeding up the development of medical countermeasures," Atala said.

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