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National Geographic Takes an Interest in Organs-on-Chips Research

The magazine published a special January edition on "The Future of Medicine" highlighting innovative organs-on-chips research and technology.

Clive Svendsen, PhD, left, director of the Cedars-Sinai Board of Governors Regenerative Medicine Institute, and Samuel Sances, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow at the institute, with the January 2019 special edition of National Geographic. The magazine cover features an image of spinal cord tissue that was shot by Sances in his lab.

Photo by Cedars-Sinai

Biomedical researchers at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, CA have caught the attention of National Geographic. The magazine published a special edition this month covering "The Future of Medicine" that highlights the innovative stem-cell science of Cedars-Sinai, showing how investigators there are seeking to use stem cells and organs-on-chips to tailor personalized medical treatments.

The cover photo of the special issue features research being conducted at Cedars-Sinai in collaboration with Boston, MA-based Emulate, a startup developing a tissue-based technology designed to replicate human organ-level function that is used to model organs in healthy and diseased states.

According to Cedars-Sinai, scientists can place copies of patients' own cells (created from their stem cells) inside transparent chips that are the size of AA batteries. Drugs then can be tested on the cells, to help doctors tailor treatment options to the individual patient.

Using this technique, Cedars-Sinai has so far created functioning tissues of intestinal linings and spinal cords inside the chips, and more tissues are planned. Parkinson's disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), ovarian cancer, and inflammatory bowel disease (which includes Crohn's and ulcerative colitis) are among the disorders being studied on the chip.

The pioneering Patient-on-a-Chip program is a collaboration between the Cedars-Sinai Board of Governors Regenerative Medicine Institute, directed by Clive Svendsen, PhD, and Emulate.

The chips re-create the microenvironment that cells require to exhibit an unprecedented level of biological function and to behave like they do in the human body. Cedars-Sinai makes the cells that go into the chips, using induced pluripotent stem calls, or iPSCs. These stem cells, created by reprogramming an adult's skin or blood cells into an embryonic state, can be made into cells of any organ, according to the researchers.

The cover of National Geographic features a composite photo of an Organ-Chip against a laboratory glove and a highly magnified image of functioning spinal cord tissue inside the chip. Samuel Sances, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow in Svendsen's laboratory, developed the chip for his research and shot the background image on the lab's microscope.

"Working with the journal's team was actually a lot of fun," Sances said. "This is a very new technology— my first chance to 'open up the hood' and let someone inside. It was really great to get the concept across to a wider audience."

Sances is the first author of a study, published in March in Stem Cell Reports, that used an Organ-Chip to make discoveries about how spinal motor neurons may develop. His colleague Robert Barrett, PhD, an assistant professor of medicine at Cedars-Sinai, this year announced his lab's creation of an intestinal chip in Cellular and Molecular Gastroenterology and Hepatology.

It will be a few years before Patient-on-a-Chip is ready for use in actual patients, according to Svendsen, a professor of medicine and biomedical sciences at Cedars-Sinai. But the day will come, he says.

"I think we're entering a new era of medicine—precision medicine," he said. "In the future, you'll have your iPSC line made, generate the cell type in your body that is sick and put it on a chip to understand more about how to treat your disease."

To bring that day closer, Cedars-Sinai in 2016 launched Cedars-Sinai Precision Health with the goal of driving the development of the newest technology and best research, coupled with the finest clinical practice, to rapidly enable a new era of personalized health. Patient-on-a-Chip is an important part of that effort, the institution noted.

"Cedars-Sinai Precision Health and its Patient-on-a-Chip initiative with Emulate are leading medicine forward into the future at an ever-accelerating pace," said Shlomo Melmed, MD, executive vice president of academic affairs and dean of the Cedars-Sinai medical faculty. "We are excited that National Geographic is bringing news of our cutting-edge research discovery programs to its vast, worldwide readership."

As MD+DI previously reported, Emulate has been making notable strides in the space in recent years. In 2016 the company raised $28 million to help commercialize its technology into a lab-ready system aimed at improving drug development and consumer product design. The company spun off from Harvard University's Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering in 2014.

Also in 2016, Harvard University researchers reported what they touted as the first entirely 3D-printed organ-on-a-chip with integrated sensing. By using new printable inks for multi-material 3D printing, they were able to automate the fabrication process while increasing the complexity of the devices.

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