By Gian-Paolo Mendoza
Computer simulations may change how artificial organs and drugs are tested before they can be used on patients
Imagine if medical research and clinical drug tests could be done on artificially grown organs on microchips to save time, costs, and ease ethical concerns?
That’s the dream of James Feng, a professor in biological and chemical engineering at UBC.
“The potential is tremendous,” says Feng. “The main impact of organs grown this way will be on the design of drugs; the understanding of the pathological processes.”
Dr. Feng’s group carries out research in three broad areas: mechanics of biological cells and tissues, interfacial fluid dynamics, and mechanics and rheology of complex fluids.
The group has an inter-disciplinary flavour–crosscutting applied mathematics, cell biology, soft-matter physics and chemical and biomedical engineering—that is well-suited for exploring this burgeoning technology.
Implications for the pharmaceutical industry
To explain the possibilities of his idea, Feng cites a Harvard study using a small silicon device that holds a thin layer of real cell membranes capable of producing motion similar to the heaving and breathing of a lung.
Organ models designed this way have the potential to be more accurate in drug and treatment trials, says Feng, as they can better mimic the functions of human organs, as opposed to animal models which are the current research standard.
“It’s more controlled and you can simplify the process much faster,” said Feng.
“Harvard researchers also injected drugs into their chip model to see how it changed its behaviour and to see the tissue’s reaction to mechanical or chemical disturbance,” he added.
“It’s very important for drug design and discovery and the pharmaceutical industry would be tremendously interested in that.”
In addition, organs on a chip present a less controversial option for organ model testing compared to stem cell research. According to Feng, this is because their ultimate goals are very different from each other.
“The research that tried to grow organs directly from stem cells is aiming for eventually implantable organs,” he said. “The idea of making the chip is to work toward replacing animal models, so as to be more accurate and realistic like human organs. While the ability to replicate a complex human organ function remains far off, the direction appeals to anyone who is hoping to reduce the use of animals in research.”
Simulating organ functions on a chip
Feng says this kind of organ testing offers the possibility of greatly reducing cost and time required for clinical trials.
“By using computer simulations we can generate results and insights, and run virtual tests much more easily and quickly,” he says.
“We can test maybe hundreds or thousands of designs of organ chips to be able to tell you whether you should try those ten designs instead of the hundreds one by one.”
Feng, who has a background in aerospace engineering, says this new bio-technology has the potential to transform the development of artificial organs and drugs the way computer simulations have replaced the use of wind tunnels for designing aircrafts.
“That used to be the dominant mode of designing crafts,” he said, “but that’s being replaced by online computer simulations because we understand the principles of aerodynamics so well.”
While UBC’s efforts in the field are in the early stages, Feng is reaching out to researchers from other backgrounds. He will be inviting leading scientists to UBC in July 2014 for a workshop that will centre on the growth of artificial organs and computer simulations. He is also exploring ideas of his own.
“I have a collaboration with an engineering colleague on how to use the microfluidic chip, the technology used to emulate the lung in the Harvard study, as a way of measuring malaria-infected red cells,” he said, suggesting that this is just one of the countless ways this new technology could be used to fuel future innovation.
Senior Communications Coordinator
UBC Public Affairs