A human organ on a microchip has won the Design Museum’s Design of the Year contest. It does not look like much but the small, thin sandwich of clear polymer is lined with human cells to mimic the behaviour of human tissue or an organ. Called Organs-On-Chips, it’s exactly what it sounds like: A microchip embedded with hollow microfluidic tubes that are lined with human cells, through which air, nutrients, blood and infection-causing bacteria could be pumped. These chips get manufactured the same way companies like Intel make the brains of a computer. But instead of moving electrons through silicon, these chips push minute quantities of chemicals past cells from lungs, intestines, livers, kidneys and hearts. Networks of almost unimaginably tiny tubes give the technology its name—microfluidics—and let the chips mimic the structure and function of complete organs, making them an excellent testbed for pharmaceuticals.
The ultimate goal is to lessen dependence on animal test subjects and decrease time and cost for developing drugs. Last year, researchers from Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering started a company called Emulate, which is now working with companies like Johnson & Johnson on just this idea: pre-clinical trial testing. The company is currently working on incorporating Emulate’s chips into its research and development programs.
When the Harvard team first published its findings on the chips in 2010, the research was purely scientific. Now, five years later, it’s not only been inducted into the world’s foremost design collection, it’s also been named Design of the Year.
“the epitome of design innovation — elegantly beautiful form, arresting concept and pioneering application”. Paola Antonelli, design curator at MOMA
“A really big idea, it incorporates technology and design to eliminate the problem of having to use nimals to test a product. It feels like one of those questions of the future.” Artist Anish Kapoor