On the biomed menu: Mini-organs, organ-on-a-chip

When it comes to biology, fiction often predates reality, sometimes by centuries. Mary Shelly’s “Frankenstein” epitomizes how much one novel has infiltrated science throughout time. For example, earlier this year, Science created a fun infographic depicting which 21st century technologies could give birth to a modern day Victor Frankenstein. A combination of transplants, lab-grown and mechanical organs, along with bionics round out the magazine’s homage to the book’s 200th anniversary.

human body rendering with small organs highlighted

Since the first paper describing a brain organoid—a miniature, simplified version of a human organ—published in 2013, many new technologies, from organs-on-a-chip to organoids, have continued biomedical science down the innovative path that some still liken to Shelley’s work. No longer the stuff of Gothic novels, these methods and technologies have the potential to replace some animal models currently used in studying new drugs and developing personalized approaches for cancer treatment.

Though many teams contribute to innovation in the laboratory, there are salient differences in the technologies from which mini-organs spring. Ken Zaret, director of the Institute for Regenerative Medicine, explains that organoids are simply miniature versions of immature organs. Where an organ-on-a-chip involves cells grown on an engineered structure under controlled conditions, organoids, eventually the size of a grain of sand and viable for up to a year, are created when immature cells are manipulated into different organ tissue types before being spun in a bioreactor where they take on a three-dimensional form.

Read more at Penn Medicine News.