This week, scientists at Harvard University announced that for the first time ever, they've managed to 3D-print an organ-on-a-chip. The "organ"—a heart—could one day lead to breakthroughs in areas like in vitro tissue engineering and drug screening research.
Before you get too excited, the heart-on-a-chip isn't intended to function as a replacement for the heart in the human body. Instead, it's meant to stand in as a replacement for animal testing. Such "organs" are build to mimic the structure and function of the tissues of the body. So, for instance, if you wanted to know whether a certain drug might be effective in regulating heart disease, you could potentially test its effect on the heart-on-a-chip instead of typical lab animals like rats.
To do so, researchers developed six different cellular "inks" that can be printed to integrate different types of sensors within cell tissue. Those materials then get printed into a cardiac microphysiological device—the chip part of the heart-on-a-chip—to create a tiny model of the heart's tissues and function. Every chip contains multiple segments that allow researchers to study many different kinds of engineered cardiac tissues at the same time.
Researchers have manufactured chip versions of other organs, like the liver. But by entirely 3D-printing their heart-on-a-chip, the Harvard scientists have paved the way to fabricate and collect data from organs-on-a-chip much more cheaply and efficiently. The hope is this will help us more accurately model and treat diseases of the heart and other organs.
Check out the video below for more on how it all works: