It's Showtime!

by Berend van Meer, LUMC and University of Twente, January 2020

If one would ask me at a birthday party what I do, I would explain about Organs-on-Chip and tell them it is probably the most exciting field of research ever. Well, maybe apart from ‘Atlas’: robots are always cool. But then again, we – and this is a very royal “we” – have also made robots. “We” have made very cool images and movies. We have created hundreds of designs for different organ structures. And we have put some cells in many of them as well. Organs-on-Chip have been reported as one of the Top 10 emerging technologies. And, we have made tons of promises – or at least generated tons of expectations.

Time to demonstrate

But now comes the hard part: we need to meet up to those expectations. Robustly. Repeatable. Validated. And we need to demonstrate what an Organ-on-Chip (OoC) can do that we cannot do in a petri dish? We need to show the world because, despite all the cool things we are doing, the uptake of OoC in the real world is disappointing, to say the least.

And let’s be honest, also for us OoC is not a piece of cake. Honestly, how long does it take to set up an OoC with flow and reasonable cell culture in a device? How many PhD students are still fighting bubbles in their systems? Do we have the right cells in our OoCs? And if we have everything working, do we have the right tools for imaging and readout? And if you’ve generated a proof-of-concept, how do you know whether it is actually clinically relevant? Better than (or at least as good as) animal models? How should we validate our models?

Next step: basic standards

It is time for our field, for us, to take the next step. We need to establish some basics, standard parts of technology across the field. We need to agree on simple chip standards to make sure we can exchange our chips and set them up within days in other labs. We need to share cell sources and imaging platforms. We need to stand on each other’s shoulders to look further instead of trying to re-invent the wheel.

While this is a global challenge, I would argue that the best place to start is here, in the Netherlands. The highly collaborative network of hDMT is a perfect starting point for establishing these kinds of infrastructures. And we have started already: you may have heard about the Translational Organ-on-Chip Platform, a way to make OoCs plug&play. The iPSC Hotel, a place to go for differentiation protocols or the generation of (isogenic) iPSC lines. But we are building a lot more: an OoC specific imaging facility; a biobank of human cells with samples that have been very well characterized including their risk to develop certain diseases; an OoC Hotel where you can set up your new OoC model, be trained in using OoC or biologically qualify your model. For the latter purpose, we are even working on setting up an EU-wide infrastructure for qualification of OoC models, aimed to be connected with JRC EURL ECVAM and with distributed sites across Europe.

All these facilities are open to other hDMT researchers and of course to European OoC researchers through EUROoCS. And more infrastructure facilities will appear as we move forward. In fact, if there is a piece of established (bio)technology in your lab that can be of general use to hDMT researchers, please come and discuss this with me or Janny van den Eijnden-van Raaij, managing director of hDMT.

Time to invest

So if one would ask me now what I’m doing, I’d probably start about the importance of reproducibility, standardized testing and explain that now comes a time for investing in the OoC infrastructure in the Netherlands. This might sound very boring. Luckily my friends already know better. They now only ask one question: “Would you please stop talking about your Oregano Chips? We think they are disgusting!” and then they can’t stop laughing.