Spotlights

Honey, I Shrunk the Organ

With flu season spiraling in, many Duke students are asking themselves if they should subject their bodies to the annual vaccination. However, with the mounting number of side effects, getting vaccinated seems more and more like a game of Russian roulette.

Scientists currently test drugs on animals. But, there is one significant limitation to this method: animals are not humans. Because animals’ bodies are so different from ours, all too often we find that drugs marked “safe” have been falsely labeled.

Luckily, recent Duke graduate Ringo Yen and his colleagues at the Truskey Lab are finding a solution to this problem. To eliminate the need for expensive and often useless animal testing, the National Institute of Health has given 13 schools, including Duke, grants to engineer “Tissues on a Chip.”

“Currently, pharmaceutical companies test drugs on animals, which don’t work and cost billions. These chips would completely curb that need. It’s cheaper and it’s more accurate,” says Ringo.

Each chip is engineered to mimic the biological conditions of an organ in the human body. The Truskey Lab is presently working to create a circulatory system on a chip. If successful, scientists will test the toxicity of drugs on these chips instead of on animals.

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With a degree in biomedical engineering from Duke, Ringo’s job for the project is to design the chip itself. Contrary to popular belief, the chip does not include every vein and artery in the body

Ringo tells us, “The chip only contains a small engineered blood vessel and small pieces of skeletal muscle that run together in the device.”

Add a mix of proteins, nutrients, and fluids, seal the edges, start the flow of “blood,”and voila! You have a mini circulatory system on a chip. Seems simple enough, right?

Wrong. The actual composition of the device is far more complex. Ringo has to replicate the environment of the human body—the motions, the pressure, the flow of fluids. And he has to accomplish all of this on a little 3×3 inch chip.

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This has proven to be quite the task. Ringo started working in the Truskey Lab back in 2011 and has been a devoted researcher ever since. For 3 years he has been condensing the chip and simplifying the device so that it can circulate on its own.

According to Leigh Atchinson, a graduate student working with Ringo in the lab, the prototype they have now can operate for up to 5 weeks on its own. It looks like they are on the right track so far. However, the NIH won’t wait around for these chips forever.

Ringo says, “The project is entirely milestone driven, which means we have to set goals and show results.”

The objective is to simplify each chip and connect it to others by the end of the 5-year program. Though time is tight and the pressure is on, he plans to see the full 5 years through.

“I love this project,” he says. “It addresses a critical need in drug development and it really has a clear, defined goal.”

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The prospect of commercializing the chip has also kept Ringo tied to this project. Once a top-10 finalist in the Duke Start-Up Challenge, Ringo loves the idea of mixing business and engineering.

“It’s very fulfilling to make something and push it out into the market yourself. It’s like your baby” says Ringo.

If all goes as planned, by the end of the 5 years, Ringo and his team’s “baby” will be on the market for scientists to purchase for lab use.

If the chip succeeds, it will revolutionize scientific research and facilitate drug development. It will be cheaper than running what Ringo calls “a hotel for pigs”; it will be more humane than euthanizing animals after they are no longer useful in the lab; and it will be more accurate than testing drugs on animals with a completely different biological makeup than us.

But the scope of the Tissue on a Chip reaches far beyond lab research.

“In the future, the idea is to have a ‘You on a Chip,’ ” says Ringo.

In other words, a chip on the market that is customized to ones unique biology.

So 10 years down the road, come flu season, if a Duke student is still wondering how a vaccination will affect his body specifically, he could test it on his own personal chip.

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Photographers: Maria Carrasco and Tracy Huang
Production Assistant: Akahne Philpot
Stylist: Brooke Huang and Tracy Huang


 

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