The London Museum of Modern Art announced earlier this month that the new “organs-on-chips” used for medical testing are the 2015 design of the year. Organs-on-chips are microchips filled with microfluidic tubes lined with human organ cells. Air, nutrients, blood and infection-causing pathogens can be pumped through these cell-lined microtubes, in effect creating a tiny, functional version of a human organ.
More on organs-on-chips
The first research publications on organs-on-chips came out in 2010 as a paper from a team at Harvard. That Harvard team has morphed into the Wyss Institute, which is commercially developing the new technology for use in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology sector for the testing of new drugs and experimental treatments.
The organ-on-chip can, on a limited scale, replace the actual structures of an organ: the renal tubules of a kidney, the alveoli of the lungs, the veins in a liver—with organ cell-lined microfluidic tubes. The chips also imitate the movement mechanics of a specific organ. For example, pusing air through a tube while under vacuum to introduce a flexing movement simulates the human breathing in a lung. The microtubes are encased in a translucent polymer, which means researchers can actually observe what’s happening inside. Furthermore, multiple chips can be linked together to create a “whole-body” network of human organs that can be used for testing new treatments.
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Perhaps the best news is that these organs-on-chips can be manufactured in pretty much the same way that a firm like AMD or Intel makes a semiconductor chip. These chips move tiny quantities of chemicals of pathogens past cells from human lungs, intestines, livers, kidneys and hearts. The goal is to reduce the need for animal test subjects and decrease time and expense of drug development.
Researchers from Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering launched a company called Emulate in 2014, and the start up is currently working with Johnson & Johnson and other pharmas on pre-clinical trial testing using the chips.
Selection of organs-on-chips as 2015 London MOMA Design of the Year reflects growing diversity of design
London’s MOMA picks one design project as the year’s best and highlights it throughout the year. Past winners have included Zaha Hadid’s controversial Heydar Aliyev Cultural Centre in Azerbaijan, a lightbulb and a government website. Designers and pundits alike note that a medical device developed by microbiologist and engineers as the winner this year, isn’t just confirmation of a brilliant design, it makes it clear that what counts as “design” is also changing.