In quest for better treatments, Penn prof’s ‘avatars of human organs’ simulate lungs

    A University of Pennsylvania engineering professor is getting a $1.5 million grant from the National Institutes for Health for work on simulated organs. Called “organs on chips,” the devices might lead to better treatments for diseases such as asthma.

    About the size of a grade-schooler’s eraser, each artificial lung has little interior tubes where actual human cells are implanted.

    “You can think of them as avatars of human organs, if you will,” said assistant professor Dan Huh.

    These cells are fed a mixture of nutrients and oxygen through a syringe to simulate a natural environment. The device, made from the same material as contact lenses, is then manipulated inside  a climate-controlled box.

    “Because the device is flexible, we can actually compress or stretch the whole device to mimic an asthma attack,” said Huh.

    By recreating constricted airways, pharmaceutical companies could one day use the chips to test drugs, Huh said. Currently, a lot of this trial and error takes place with live animals or in petri dishes that don’t give the same real-world results.

    Work like this is happening in fewer than a dozen labs around the country. Huh’s team is also developing simulated eyes, skin and placentas.

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