Almost 19 million Euros for R & D of ‘organs-on-chips’

Monday, 8 May 2017

hDMT researchers receive NWO Gravitation grant for 10 years of top level, curiosity-driven, scientific research

The six NOCI PI's at the granting ceremony. From left to right: Hans Clevers, Christine Mummery (project leader), Lina Sarro, Jet Bussemaker (Minister of Health), Michel Ferrari, Albert van den Berg, and Sebo Withoff (on behalf of Cisca Wijmenga). Photo: Melvin Tas

It sounds almost like science fiction but it really can be done: making miniature organs from patients and using them to study how diseases develop and can be treated. This is what researchers of the LUMC, University of Twente (UT), UMCG, TU Delft and the Hubrecht Institute want to achieve in the next 10 years with a Gravitation grant of almost 19 million Euros that they received from the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO).

'Organs-on-chips' are small devices made of silicon containing living human cells and tissues which mimic the dynamic forces and local environment of tissues in the body. By making small channels in the chips, through which micro amounts of liquid can flow to feed the growing cells, and incorporating sensors, the behaviour of the cells can be measured very accurately. "We almost construct a small part of an organ," developmental biology professor Christine Mummery of the LUMC and UT says.

Christine Mummery in NOS Journaal (8 May 2017) on the Noci Project

Christine Mummery in Eenvandaag (1 aug 2017) about Organs-on-chips (in Dutch)

Research of heart, brain and gut cells

Mummery is leader of the project called NOCI (Netherlands Organ-on-Chip Initiative), in which 5 other top notch scientists participate, Albert van den Berg (nanotechnologist, UT), Hans Clevers (cell biologist, Hubrecht Institute), Michel Ferrari (neurologist, LUMC), Lina Sarro (nanotechnologist, TU Delft) and Cisca Wijmenga (human geneticist, UMCG). This group has been working together on organs-on-chips for some time already in the organ-on-chip consortium Human Organ and Disease Model Technologies (hDMT)

Top: the Principal Investigators of the Netherlands Organ-on-Chip Initiative (NOCI) project
Bottom: the three organ-on-chip models, derived from human stemcells, that will be developed and linked.

For the NOCI project they focus on brain, heart, intestinal and blood vessel cells, that are derived from patient stem cells. The cells are grown in the 'chip organs' where they function just they would in organs in the human body, Mummery explains. "We make our hearts-on-chip beat like a real heart and our intestine-on-chip will have its own bacteria. And we build parts of the brain together with the Erasmus MC. In this way we can mimic exactly what goes wrong in those organs in certain diseases."

The researchers will also study the effect that intestinal bacteria have on other parts of the body. "Cardiovascular diseases are sometimes caused by an imbalance in the intestinal flora." To investigate this aspect, the researchers will link three organ-on-chip systems and study how they influence each other. "Thus we will be able to observe how diseased and healthy organs influence each other and will measure what happens in the brain or the heart when the bacterial balance in the gut becomes disturbed."

Miniature organs as alternative for animal experiments

These cultured miniature organs offer a good alternative for some types of animal experiments. "What happens in an animal model is not always representative for the human body. A mouse heart beats 500 times per minute, a human heart only 60 times. Also some brain parts are very different in mice and man and the mouse colon has a different function than the human colon," Mummery says. "We also think we can test and predict some effects and adverse events of new medications better and faster in 'organs-on-chips'."

Do these miniature versions of the brain, heart and gut also help to cure diseases faster? "Not yet", Mummery says. "Developing new medicines takes time. Our research will run for 10 years. We will focus first on the question of how diseases develop, then we will look for molecules that can influence these processes. We will also study why some people with an inherited disease become very ill, while others with the same genetic variant or defect have less severe health problems."

Organs-on-chips and hDMT

hDMT is a pre-competitive, non-profit, technological research institute, where renowned scientists from 14 Dutch organisations (academic research centres, research institutes, University Medical Centres, and biotech companies) work together. In this consortium hDMT researchers share and integrate their knowledge, expertise and research facilities in technology, biology, physics, chemistry, pharmacology and medicine to develop organs-on-chips using human stem cells. hDMT aims to disseminate organ-on-chip models and research data via open access publication and valorisation.

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