How can we better predict how new medications act in the human body? This was the main question when we started our FET Open project Body on a Chip (BoC) in 2012. Too many new and promising drugs fail in very late stages of the development process because they are not efficient or produce unwanted - sometimes even dangerous - side effects. The Swiss company InSphero AG developed sand-grain-sized 3D microtissues which mimic human organs like the liver, the pancreas or tumours to solve this problem.

Our BoC project took the technology a step further. We created a polymer microfluidic chip which connects different 3D micro-organs and creates an abstract version of a human body, on a chip. This is how we can now test drugs on organ networks, instead of single organs, to better understand how they affect the human body as a whole. It means that animal testing in the future might become obsolete – or at least substantially reduced. Our work was also internationally recognised by Global 3Rs Awards program and NC3R's.

What makes the BoC project unique?

Our BoC approach is unique because it is compatible with existing laboratory instruments available in the industry. The project team was led by InSphero and cooperated with the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH), KU Leuven, TU Dortmund University and with industry partner AstraZeneca. Together we developed a technology platform which creates and cultures 3D micro-organs off chip, using InSphero’s well established processes, followed by loading several of them onto the chip in the desired configuration. This has two important advantages: first, production can be scaled up with high yield and commercial viability. Second, many different applications can be implemented using the same device.

How is the technology used in the industry at the moment?

We are currently beta testing the BoC platform, baptised Akura™ Flow, with commercial prototypes. This is only two years after the project was successfully completed! Hoffmann La Roche Pharmaceuticals in Basel is one of the beta testers and uses the platform in-house to investigate liver-tumour interaction. The Akura™ Flow system was also a top contender for the Innovation Award at the 2018 Society of Laboratory Automation and Science Annual Meeting in San Diego, USA.

Thanks to the excellent collaboration in our FET Open project we were able to work with top-experts in Europe. It also helped us build a strong international network to make fast progress to commercialisation. Academic partner ETH, who designed and produced the microfluidic chip, is still working closely with industrial partner InSphero. InSphero in return nominated Dr. Olivier Frey as Head of Platforms and Technologies to continue his excellent work after being the project leader for BoC at ETH. Together with a small team, Dr. Frey now develops new microchip generations, instruments and several applications ranging from efficacy to safety tests using the new technology.

What is the biggest contribution of BoC to the industry?

When we started the BoC project our EU project officer Walter Van de Velde said: helping innovative companies bridge the gap between commercialising a first technology generation and inventing the next one is what FET Open should do. Young companies must be fully focused on generating market interest for their new products. Therefore they have to cut spending on strategic research for future products. It is often hard to manage a good balance between investing into business development today and research for tomorrow and I am speaking from my own experience. The FET Open programme allowed us to get the balance right and to work on the next wave of innovation for the company. We are proud to have made this project a success from start to commercial launch. This technology platform will change the way new drugs are developed in the future: without animal testing.

More information on InSphero

More information on Akura™ Flow