heart on a chip organ electronic

3D-printed “heart-on-a-chip” allows personalised medical diagnostics

An automated manufacturing process for creating 3D-printed organs with integrated sensors has been developed by Harvard University researchers.

Built by a fully automated, digital manufacturing procedure, the team built a “heart-on-a-chip” that can be quickly fabricated in customised form factors, allowing researchers to easily collect reliable data for medical studies.

It is hoped that this manufacturing process could allow researchers to rapidly design organs-on-chips, also known as microphysiological systems, that match the properties of a specific disease or even an individual patient’s cells.

“This new programmable approach to building organs-on-chips not only allows us to easily change and customise the design of the system by integrating sensing, but also drastically simplifies data acquisition,” said Harvard’s Johan Ulrik Lind, who worked on the project.

“Our microfabrication approach opens new avenues for in-vitro tissue engineering, toxicology and drug screening research,” said Kit Parker, who co-authored the study.

Organs-on-chips are designed to mimic the structure and function of native tissue for medical testing purposes. Yet the fabrication and data collection process for pre-existing organs-on-chips is expensive and laborious. This is because they must be built in clean rooms using a complex, multi-step lithographic process, and collecting data requires microscopy or high-speed cameras.

“Our approach was to address these two challenges simultaneously via digital manufacturing,” said Travis Busbee, who also worked on the project. “By developing new printable inks for multi-material 3D printing, we were able to automate the fabrication process while increasing the complexity of the devices.”

The researchers developed six different inks that integrated soft strain sensors within the micro-architecture of the tissue. In a single, continuous procedure, the team 3D-printed those materials into a cardiac microphysiological device or a “heart-on-a-chip” with integrated sensors.

“We are pushing the boundaries of three-dimensional printing by developing and integrating multiple functional materials within printed devices,” said Jennifer Lewis, Professor of Biologically Inspired Engineering. “This study is a powerful demonstration of how our platform can be used to create fully functional, instrumented chips for drug screening and disease modelling.”

The chip contains multiple wells, each with separate tissues and integrated sensors, allowing researchers to study many engineered cardiac tissues at once. To demonstrate the efficacy of the device, the team performed drug studies and longer-term studies of gradual changes in the contractile stress of engineered cardiac tissues, which can occur over the course of several weeks.

“Researchers are often left working in the dark when it comes to gradual changes that occur during cardiac tissue development and maturation because there has been a lack of easy, non-invasive ways to measure the tissue functional performance,” said Lind. “These integrated sensors allow researchers to continuously collect data while tissues mature and improve their contractility. Similarly, they will enable studies of gradual effects of chronic exposure to toxins.”

“Translating microphysiological devices into truly valuable platforms for studying human health and disease requires that we address both data acquisition and manufacturing of our devices,” said Parker. “This work offers new potential solutions to both of these central challenges.”

IBM demonstrated “lab-on-a-chip” technology in August designed to separate biological particles at the nanoscale to enable physicians to detect diseases such as cancer before symptoms appear.


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