Harvard’s 3D-printed heart on a chip hopes to make drug testing safer

Scientists at Harvard University have developed the world’s first 3D-printed heart-on-a-chip device, which could allow experiments on human hearts without requiring testing on a living and breathing person.

“We’re building part of a human — in this case, the heart — on a chip,” Kit Parker, Tarr Family Professor of Bioengineering and Applied Physics, told Digital Trends. “Doing so lets us test new drugs for efficacy and toxicity without exposing a patient to the drug in question. This is very important since developing new drugs can be pretty dangerous at times. We want to get that human data without having to give the drug to a human.”

With the findings published in the journal Nature Materials, the research describes a translucent printed organ featuring built-in sensors. This chip boasts multiple wells, with separate tissues, which let researchers study multiple engineered cardiac tissues at the same time.

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Organs on chips have been all the rage in medical technology for a few years now, with previous organs that have been “grown” including kidneys, intestines, lungs and placentas. But as Parker noted, these have often come with challenges — not least for scalability.

“For the last couple of years there has been renewed interest from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and various companies to put organs on chips,” he said. “One of the problems, however, is that the solutions that were being developed were one-offs. In other words, they could not be mass-manufactured. We’ve developed a model that can be mass-manufactured.”

3D printing means that fabrication and data collection no longer has to be an expensive and time-consuming prospect. By using new printable inks for multi-material 3D printing, the researchers were able to print the entire cardiac device with integrated sensors in one go.

Drug testing is not the only possible use-case, either.

“We think this could have significant implications for spaceflight,” Parker said. “Right now, NASA are among the only people talking about putting humans on spaceflights. Everyone else is focused on taking them off and having unmanned space missions. Thanks to this advance, we could have a semi-manned mission to Mars or into space. That means we could put part of a person onto a chip so we can start to understand long-term spaceflight and microgravity environments on human physiology — without having to put an astronaut at risk.”

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