Scientists Build Miniature Beating Heart on a Chip That Can Be Used to Develop Personalized Medication and Treatments

Organ-on-a-chip technologies are becoming more sophisticated and more widely used, accelerating precision medicine developments

Organ-on-a-chip technologies are advancing the development of personalized medicines and clinical care. One such device created at Boston University (BU) may be the key to precision medicine in cardiology.

Led by Christopher Chen, MD, PhD, William F. Warren Distinguished Professor of Biomedical Engineering, the BU researchers developed a tiny beating heart-on-a-chip that models the human heart, and which can be used to test how medications and treatments will affect the hearts of individual patients prior to being administered those drugs or treatments.

Formally called the “cardiac miniaturized Precision-enabled Unidirectional Microfluidic Pump”—but better known by its simpler nickname: “miniPUMP”—the tiny device is only three square centimeters in size but includes valves, tubes that mimic arteries and veins, and a small, beating chamber made out of cardiac muscle cells.

The miniPUMP creates a realistic simulation of a functioning human heart which can be controlled completely in the clinical laboratory and individualized with heart cells from specific patients.

The BU researchers published details of how the miniPUMP works in Science Advances, titled, “Engineering a Living Cardiac Pump on a Chip Using High-Precision Fabrication.”

Christopher Chen, MD, PhD, Quote. Director of the Tissue Microfabrication Laboratory at Boston University. Organ on a chip heart
“We don’t think previous methods of studying heart tissue capture the way the muscle would respond in your body,” said Christopher Chen, MD, PhD (above), Director of the Tissue Microfabrication Laboratory at Boston University. “This gives us the first opportunity to build something that mechanically is more similar to what we think the heart is actually experiencing—it’s a big step forward.” (Photo: Wyss Institute Harvard University)

Personalized Heart Models for Cardio Patients

“The heart experiences complex forces as it pumps blood through our bodies,” Chen explained in a Boston University press release. “And while we know that the heart muscle changes for the worse in response to abnormal forces—for example, due to high blood pressure or valve disease—it has been difficult to mimic and study these disease processes. This is why we wanted to build a miniaturized heart chamber.”

The miniPUMP model not only allows a better simulation of how the heart works for medical testing, but it also can be used to create personalized models for specific patients. This technology could enable researchers to take cells from individuals with rare disorders and then see how their heart cells respond in a situation that simulates real-life forces.

“With this system, if I take cells from you, I can see how the drug would react in you, because these are your cells,” said Christos Michas, PhD, a postdoctoral associate in biomedical engineering at Boston University who led the development of miniPUMP as part of his PhD thesis, in the press release.

“This system replicates better some of the function of the heart, but at the same time, gives us the flexibility of having different humans that it replicates. It’s a more predictive model to see what would happen in humans—without actually getting into humans,” Michas added.

Part of what made miniPUMP successful was a new approach that researchers used to create microscopic scaffolds for cardiac cells to grow on. Researchers used a microscopic, 3D-printed acrylic scaffold that supports and moves with cardiac cells.

“We can study disease progression in a way that hasn’t been possible before,” said Alice White, PhD, College of Engineering professor and chair of mechanical engineering at BU. “We chose to work on heart tissue because of its particularly complicated mechanics, but we showed that, when you take nanotechnology and marry it with tissue engineering, there’s potential for replicating this for multiple organs.”

FDA Authorization Based on Organ-on-a-Chip Data

Applications for organ-on-a-chip technologies are increasing, especially as a potential means of treating rare diseases.

For example, scientists supported by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) recently used an organ-on-a-chip model to not only find potential treatment for rare diseases, but also to provide pre-clinical data to obtain US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) authorization for clinical testing.

The research was led by Hesperos Inc., an Orlando-based company that used its organ-on-a-chip (aka, tissue chip) technology to model neurological cells and develop potential treatments for chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy (CIDP), an autoimmune disease of the peripheral nervous system, and multifocal motor neuropathy (MMN), a syndrome characterized by weakening muscles in the extremities.

Both neurological diseases are very rare, and using animal models to develop treatments for these diseases has been difficult. This innovation marks one of the first times a submission for FDA approval to begin clinical trials has depended primarily on data captured on an organ-on-a-chip device.

“This marks an important milestone in the evolution of the use of tissue chips,” said Lucie Low, PhD, an NIH scientific program manager, in an NIH news release. “We know that pharmaceutical companies are using tissue chips internally. Submitting data to regulatory agencies generated from tissue chip platforms is a powerful indicator of their growing promise.”

With organ-on-a-chip technology increasingly being used not only for research, but also as a means of demonstrating efficacy for regulatory submissions, new developments like miniPUMP will have even greater value. Healthcare leaders will benefit from being aware of how organ-on-a-chip technologies are advancing and the impact they will have on accelerating advances in precision medicine.

—Caleb Williams

Related Information:

Engineering a Living Cardiac Pump on a Chip Using High-Precision Fabrication

New Miniature Heart Could Help Speed Heart Disease Cures

Researchers Create 3D Model for Rare Neuromuscular Disorders, Setting Stage for Clinical Trial

Christopher Chen, MD, PhD

Christos Michas, PhD

Alice White, PhD

Lucie Low, PhD

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