“The future is already here – it’s just not very evenly distributed.”

-William Gibson, acclaimed science fiction author

The pharmaceutical industry is constantly looking for the next revolution in drug discovery that will save time and resources. Based on Biotech Connection Boston’s recent Organs-On-Chips event, the next revolution is already here, but just not everywhere.

The numbers and costs behind drug discovery are staggering, and what’s worse is that they are also increasing. As moderator John Carroll (Editor at FierceBiotech) said, “There is daily dysfunction in drug development”. One major obstacle in the discovery process is the failure of pre-clinical animal models to predict human physiology. Organs-On-Chips were designed to overcome this challenge, and the sky is the limit for this groundbreaking technology. Our panelists, Dr. Donald Ingber (Director of the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard), Dr. Peggy Guzzie-Peck (Global Head of Investigative Safety Sciences at Johnson & Johnson), and Dr. Chris Hinojosa (Principal Microfluidics Engineer at Emulate) represented critical players in the development and implementation of this technology and shared their thoughts and expertise during an exciting and informative discussion.

John Carroll, Don Ingber, Peggy Guzzie-Peck, and Chris Hinojosa (left to right) discuss organs-on-chips.

John Carroll, Don Ingber, Peggy Guzzie-Peck, and Chris Hinojosa (left to right) discuss organs-on-chips.

Organs-On-Chips technology has been highlighted in both scientific and public domains, being named Design of the Year by the London Design Museum. These microfabricated devices contain microfluidic channels coated with living cells from organs such as lung or kidney to recapitulate organ-level structure and function (for a more detailed explanation of this technology, check out our pre-event article). Dr. Ingber pioneered the use of microfluidics in cell biology and developed Organs-On-Chips in a focused effort to improve drug discovery. “If the goal (of drug development) is to fail quickly and cheaply, that’s depressing.” By working closely with pharma to fine-tune the features of Organs-On-Chips to the needs of the industry, this technology was able to be rapidly adopted by leaders such as Johnson & Johnson (press release here). Dr. Guzzie-Peck said that collaboration has been critical to the development and validation of this technology.

“This level of cross-field collaboration wouldn’t have happened 20, 25 years ago, (things are) much more open now. Even 10 years ago inter-company collaboration would have been difficult).”

-Dr. Peggy Guzzie-Peck, Johnson & Johnson

One barrier between academic and industry collaboration is that academics are wary about discoveries being kept as intellectual property and not published. However, Dr. Ingber was adamant that this technology be made available, and even published in Science Translational Medicine with GlaxoSmithKline confirming use of Organs-On-Chips as a cardiac disease model. Since Organs-On-Chips technology led to the spin-out formation of Emulate, Dr. Ingber also developed two levels of industry contracts, one sponsoring academic research and another with modified rights to Emulate’s technology.

J&J is applying Organs-On-Chips to a broad range of areas, including designing better models for consumer products and understanding drug and toxicity mechanisms. As Dr. Guzzie-Peck pointed out, the key question that guides its adoption is, “Is it fit for purpose for a given context of use?” While Organs-On-Chips is ready for some applications, additional validation and de-risking is needed for others. Excitingly, the FDA is also bullish on this innovative technology, and has said that as long as companies show that Organs-On-Chips data is “as good or better” as animal data, it can be used to replace animal testing. This would be a huge accomplishment in reducing cost and uncertainty from the drug discovery process, in addition to addressing the ethical complaints to animal testing.

Organs-On-Chips is still a fledgling technology, but already has numerous applications that scientists and companies are pursuing. Dr. Ingber’s lab is developing additional organ chips and working on linking them together. At Emulate, Dr. Hinojosa said that the immediate goals for this technology are to increase its scale, robustness, and reproducibility to allow it to truly become “plug and play” technology. At the same time, Emulate is in constant discussion with pharma groups to understand their immediate needs and to improve the functionality of Organs-On-Chips. From the industrial perspective, the next frontier for Organs-On-Chips is to make it high-throughput to facilitate drug screening. This technology could also be a huge factor in precision medicine, where cells could be derived from individual patients to understand how certain drugs may affect them.

While Organs-On-Chips technology may sound like science fiction, William Gibson was right about one thing: the future of drug discovery is already here. Now researchers and industry professionals have the responsibility to maximize the potential of this technology and extend it to all aspects of drug discovery.