Science Market Update

Harvard Lung-on-a-Chip Biotechnology Breathes Life into Drug Research

Posted by BCI Staff on Fri, Nov 09, 2012

At the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University, in the Longwood medical neighborhood in Boston, researchers have reached a biotech milestone with tremendous potential for future drug testing and development. Instead of resorting to animals for testing, they may soon be using a simulated organ that lives on a chip. It has mechanical and biological (cellular) parts, and yes, it breathes, thanks to a vacuum system that pumps air through. The bio-inspired micro-device has gone through several tests recently to assess its accuracy in mimicking the human lung when bacteria or potentially toxic drugs are introduced. Results: Positive. The lung-on-a-chip replicates responses found in animal models and observations of human lung function. Indeed, because the device uses human lung and blood vessel cells, it acts may act more like a lung in a human body than lab animals.

Picture a clear, rectangular vessel about the size of a matchbox, made of a flexible polymer material. Channels run lengthwise through the device. In the upper channel, air flows; in the lower, blood. In between are a layer of capillary cells and a layer of lung cells. All of this is manufactured using microfabrication techniques combined with modern tissue engineering. In one experiment with the lung-on-a-chip, researchers pumped bacteria in with the air and white blood cells in with the sanguine fluid. Sure enough, the white blood cells migrated up through the capillary and lung cells to attack the bacteria, just as they would in a human being.

In another test, the lung cancer drug IL-2 was introduced into the model. Though effective against cancer, the drug has a high instance of toxicity, leading to the development of pulmonary edema. Investigators found that their device also contracted the biproduct condition after administration of the IL-2. They learned something more, though. When they pumped air into the lungs at different rates, they registered varied levels of edema, meaning that breathing exacerbates the edemic response. They hadn't known this from the animal trials.

What this biotech accomplishment signals is a better, cheaper, more humane way of testing drugs in the future. According to Donald Ingber, M.D., Ph.D., founding director of the Wyss Institute and senior author of the study:

"In just a little more than two years, we've gone from unveiling the initial design of the lung-on-a-chip to demonstrating its potential to model a complex human disease, which we believe provides a glimpse of what drug discovery and development might look like in the future."


[Lung-on-a-chip biotech device in operation, courtesy of Wyss Institute, Harvard]

Reverse-engineering involves taking something that's a success and working backwards to figure out how it does what it does as well as it does. At the Wyss Institute, interdisciplinary bioengineers look at structures in nature for ideas and models of successful biomechanical devices, rather than starting with strict engineering principles. Given that so many animals and organisms do things that they shouldn't be able to do (i.e. that we can't yet explain), and that they've had so much evolutionary time to test out different adaptations, this approach seems more than a little promising. (It also signals a kind of humility in the face of the complex natural world that is both refreshing and game-changing.)

The Wyss Institute was first proposed conceptually in 2005, first funded in 2008, and given the largest private donation ever (for Harvard, no less) by philanthropist Hansjörg Wyss in 2009. The institute currently occupies 82,000sf feet of lab space on two floors (2nd and 5th) of the Center for Life Science Boston Building near Harvard Medical, including:

  • 2 dedicated BL2 labs for bacteria
  • 5 tissue culture rooms for mammalian cells
  • a BL2+ facility for primary human cell isolations from tissue biopsies
  • cold/warm rooms
  • separate microscopy rooms
  • a Bio-Plex 3D multiplex array system with 96- and 384-well plate capability
  • an Agilent Velocity 11 Bravo liquid handling system
  • quantitative real-time PCR detection systems
  • a Multiplex Automated Genome Engineering instrument (MAGE)
  • 4 open-source Polonators for high-throughput sequencing
  • several core facilities

Wyss investigators hold academic appointments at Harvard University and Boston University, as well as research and clinical appointments at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Children's Hospital Boston, and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. Work at the Wyss is focussed on 6 enabling technology platforms:

  1. Adaptive Material Technologies
  2. Anticipatory Medical and Cellular Devices
  3. Bioinspired Robotics
  4. Biomimetic Microsystems (like the lung-on-a-chip)
  5. Programmable Nanomaterials
  6. Synthetic Biology


Biotechnology Calendar, Inc. will be on the Harvard Medical School campus next on February 21, 2013 for our 7th Annual Boston BioResearch Product Faire event.  With life sciences researchers from Harvard Medical, Dana-Farber, Joslin Diabetes, Children's Hospital, MGH and the Life Science Building attending, this is an excellent opportunity for scientists and laboratory equipment suppliers to network and discuss their research needs and solutions. 

To see our 2013 show scheduleclick here. For a funding report and info on the Boston show specifically, click the button:


harvard research

Tags: Northeast, Lab-on-a-chip Technology, 2012, Massachusetts, Cancer, biological, Boston, BioResearch Product Faire Event, MA, Harvard, innovative solutions, Drug Development, Harvard Medical School, bio medical research

Subscribe to Company News