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Organs on a chip: the new rage in medical technology

Dip, data, and now organs — all things that can be found on a chip, though all of different varieties, of course. A new paper published this week in the Journal of Maternal-Fetal & Neonatal Medicine details how a team at the National Institutes of Health created a placenta on a chip, a new technique that is becoming increasingly common in the medical research community. The practice is said to be more cost-effective and less time-consuming than other methods of studying cells, like growing them in a petri dish or utilizing mature animal cells. And the placenta is only the latest organ to find its way onto a chip.

“The device,” the NIH team explained in a statement, “consists of a semi-permeable membrane between two tiny chambers, one filled with maternal cells derived from a delivered placenta and the other filled with fetal cells derived from an umbilical cord.” Glucose was then added to the chamber containing maternal cells, and scientists watched how the glucose moved between chambers in a process that closely resembles the manner by which nutrients pass through the placenta to a human fetus.

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“The chip may allow us to do experiments more efficiently and at a lower cost than animal studies,” said Roberto Romero, the chief of the perinatology research at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. “We hope this technology may lead to better understanding of normal placental processes and placental disorders.”

Other organs that have been “grown” on chips include lungs, kidneys, and intestines, and the University of California-Berkeley has even used a chip to replicate a heart, complete with beating cardiac cells. Don Ingber, director of the Wyss Institute, explained the practice’s popularity to the Washington Post, saying, “It’s caught on because it’s so visual and so meaningful. You’re seeing some interdisciplinary interaction between engineering and biology. It’s very moving and very powerful.”

Yet more proof that the best of things come in the smallest of packages.