OCTOPUS, an optimized device for growing mini-organs in a dish

With OCTOPUS, Dan Huh’s team expands organoid research with a platform superior to conventional gel droplets, allowing researchers to replicate biological systems outside of the body.

What if therapies could be tailored to every individual patient? Could medicine predict an individual body’s response to a drug before trial-and-error treatment? Is it possible to understand the way a person’s disease begins and develops in order to know exactly how to cure it?

A gloved hand holding a square petri dish with twelve slots.

Dan Huh, associate professor in the Department of Bioengineering at the School of Engineering and Applied Science, seeks answers to these questions by replicating biological systems outside of the body. These external copies of internal systems promise to boost drug efficacy while providing new levels of knowledge about patient health.

An innovator of organ-on-a-chip technology, or miniature copies of bodily systems stored in plastic devices no larger than a thumb drive, Huh has broadened his attention to engineering mini-organs in a dish using a patient’s own cells.

A study published in Nature Methods helmed by Huh introduces OCTOPUS, a device that nurtures organs-in-a-dish to unmatched levels of maturity. The study leaders include Estelle Park, doctoral student in bioengineering, Tatiana Karakasheva, associate director of the Gastrointestinal Epithelium Modeling Program at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, and Kathryn Hamilton, assistant professor of pediatrics in Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine and co-director of the Gastrointestinal Epithelial Modeling Program at CHOP.

In the study, the team used OCTOPUS (organoid culture-based three-dimensional organogenesis platform with unrestricted supply of soluble signals) to learn more about the unique challenges faced by children suffering with inflammatory bowel disease.

“The aim of this research,” says Park, “is to create devices that give cells an environment as close as possible to the human body. We want their development in the dish to match the development of their source, so we have a true copy to learn from. In a world where more than 90% of pre-clinical animal studies fail before testing on human subjects, and the ethics of both are complex, OCTOPUS will be an invaluable addition to current laboratory practice.”

This story is by Devorah Fischler. Read more at Penn Engineering Today.