New initiative to promote transition to Organ-on-Chip technology

October 29, 2020 Article BioVox

In an effort to raise awareness for alternatives to animal models, BioVox is helping to promote an Organ-on-Chip initiative by Dutch startup Bi/ond. The initiative aims to increase awareness and adoption of Organ-on-Chip technology, to improve in vitro research models and reduce animal testing.

Header Image: Bi/ond Organ-on-Chip technology (courtesy of Bi/ond).

Scientists investigating biological processes are currently limited to two imperfect options: animal models or in vitro cell cultures. Neither type of model perfectly replicates a fully functioning human body.

Although animals are good models for humans in many ways (we are also animals, after all), mice and monkeys will never be able to perfectly replicate a human immune response, nor account for the variability that exists even within our own species. Additionally, animal models present other issues as well, including an ethical dilemma and increased time and cost for experiments (working with animal models is far more expensive and time consuming than working with cells).

In vitro cell models, likewise, come with limitations. Though you can culture human cells and tissues, a 2D plastic plate will never fully represent the complexity of the human immune system and interconnected organs, cells and tissues.

It is clear we need better solutions. Bi/ond, a Dutch startup, believes that Organ-on-Chip technology is an important piece of the puzzle, which is currently being underutilized. The Organ-on-Chip company has launched an initiative aiming to raise awareness for Organ-on-Chip technology and the role it can play in replacing animal models.

Merging microelectronics and biological models

Bi/ond was founded in 2017 by a diverse group of engineering students from Delft University of Technology (TU Delft). The Bi/ond team saw a need for more biologically relevant in vitro options, CTO and co-founder Nikolas Gaio explains:

“At the moment, biologists are culturing in vitro cell cultures in standard multi-well plates. The plates are very simple: it’s essentially just a plastic container with a 2D cell culture. Of course, this doesn’t replicate what is actually happening inside the body. It is one of the main reasons why we still need animal models, especially for drug R&D, because biologists need a more dynamic and complex system. But there are many issues with animal models, not only with ethical considerations but also in terms of reproducibility and cost.”

We believe that, to enable biological innovation, we need to merge microelectronics and biological models. – Nikolas Gaio

To address this unmet need, the Bi/ond founders turned to what they knew best: microelectronics. Organ-on-Chip technology is an emerging field, using 3D microfluidic cell culture chips to simulate the mechanics and physiological responses of tissues and organs. The benefits of the chips are that they more closely represent the activities of a whole organ, or even organ system. They can also be created using human cells, making them more relevant to human medical research. The Bi/ond team created a new type of Organ-on-Chip by integrating microelectronics into the chips, Gaio tells us:

“We believe that, to enable biological innovation, we need to merge microelectronics and biological models. At the moment, people are empowered by multiple electronic devices, like smartphones and computers, but the power of microelectronics is not fully exploited in biological research. Bi/ond is working to address this missed opportunity. We’ve created a new type of Organ-on-Chip using a computer chip made of silicon. This chip stimulates, nourishes and monitors the cells in the plate to better replicate the way these cells exist in a body.”

A dynamic chip

Bi/ond’s 1x1cm chip has the standard Organ-on-Chip components: an open well and a microfluidic channel, in contact through a porous membrane. However, the silicon chip allows the Bi/ond model to nourish the cells in a similar manner to blood vessels bringing oxygen and nutrients; to stimulate them mechanically, in the same way cells constantly experience movement (such as expansion and contraction in the lung); and to monitor the cells, using sensors and electrodes integrated in the chip. Currently, the Bi/ond team is working together with multiple academic partners, including the Erasmus and Leiden MC, to adapt their technology to suit different types of applications. Nikolas elaborates:

“Our device is a combination between our computer chip called inCHIPit™ and an interface called comPLATE™. Together with our collaborators, primarily university hospital labs working on human cells and tissues, we’re developing different models to suit the needs of the researchers. So far, our chips have been used for cancer applications, mid-brain neurological applications, and liver and kidney models. We’ve also developed a new device which is going to focus on heart applications in cardiovascular studies.”

In the future, we believe this type of technology has the potential to reduce and replace animal models, enabling a world without animal testing. – Nikolas Gaio

Speaking of his hopes for the future, it is clear that the Bi/ond team are dreaming big:

“In this current phase, our technology is supplementary to animal models. We have to be realistic as scientists: at the moment, Organ-on-Chip technology has the power to make pre-clinical tests stronger, but they still need to be used in parallel with animal models. However, in the future, we believe this type of technology has the potential to reduce and replace animal models, enabling a world without animal testing.”

An initiative for change

In order to speed up the transition from animals to Organ-on Chip models, Bi/ond has launched an initiative to raise awareness for this type of technology: the #OOCtransition initiative. This drive was actually prompted by a previous Bi/ond initiative earlier this year: while stuck in lockdown, the Bi/ond team had (like many of the rest of us across the world) felt frustrated by their own lack of action, as the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the world. Determined to do something to do something to help, the team organized the #OoCovid initiative, where Organ-on-Chip companies from around the globe donated their technology to research labs working on the novel coronavirus.

The project met with huge success and, spurred on by the enthusiasm generated, the Bi/ond team decided to launch this new initiative. #OOCtransition is aimed at not only COVID-19 labs, but rather any researchers interested in transitioning from animal testing in favor of Organ-on-Chip technology model.

Researchers who are interested can send Bi/ond a brief project proposal where they explain how they would use Organ-on-Chip to replace animal testing (the deadline is 17th of December 2020). The winner will receive the Bi/ond’s chips for free, as well as support on how to use them for their research. For more details, visit the page on the Bi/ond website.

Read this previous BioVox article to learn more about other alternatives to animal models.

Science is about evolution: adapting our thoughts, ideas and methods as new information comes to light. It is clear that animal models have long been one of our best options for studying diseases and testing the drugs with which to cure them. However, as new technology emerges, researchers need to do their best to adopt better options as they arise. Bi/ond believes that Organ-on-Chip technology is one such development, with the possibility to make in vitro models more biologically relevant, cheaper, faster and more ethically sound. If you, or your colleagues or friends agree, then join the initiative and spread the word!


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