Researchers at Harvard University have created the world's first 3D-printed heart-on-a-chip, a sensor-integrated device that contains engineered cardiac tissue that fully mimics the actual organ. This breakthrough along with other organ-on-a-chip devices could effectively eliminate the need for animal testing as it gives scientists the ability to carry out both short and long-term studies of how different stressors affect the human body all while data is gathered by the sensors in real time.
The heart-on-a-chip contains living cardiac cells and mimics the structure and function of real heart tissue. By using 3D printing techniques the scientists are able to quickly and inexpensively customize and manufacture different types of tissue for different studies. The 3D fabrication also allows the data collection process to be built right in to the device where previous organ-on-a-chip devices have required microscopes and high speed cameras to collect study results.
The key was developing new inks that allowed multi-material printing in a single device. The printed inks provide the structure while the heart tissue self-assembles within that structure.
The Harvard Gazette explains, "The chip contains multiple wells, each with separate tissues and integrated sensors, allowing researchers to study many engineered cardiac tissues at once. To demonstrate the efficacy of the device, the team performed drug studies and longer-term studies of gradual changes in the contractile stress of engineered cardiac tissues, which can occur over the course of several weeks."
“Researchers are often left working in the dark when it comes to gradual changes that occur during cardiac tissue development and maturation because there has been a lack of easy, noninvasive ways to measure the tissue functional performance,” said Johan Ulrik Lind, postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. “These integrated sensors allow researchers to continuously collect data while tissues mature and improve their contractility. Similarly, they will enable studies of gradual effects of chronic exposure to toxins.”
The potential information that could be uncovered with these devices cannot be overstated. Scientists can now model the gradual changes in heart tissue over time as it's exposed to different drugs, toxins and physical stressors, which could lead to breakthroughs in cardiac care and medicine.
Watch the video below to see how the device is printed and what it looks like in action.