Janny van den Eijnden-van Raaij, the managing director of hDMT (Institute for Human Organ and Disease Model Technologies) tells us more about how Organ-on-Chip technology can mimic human physiology and the project ORCHID (ORgan-on-Chip In Development)funded by the Future and Emerging Technologies (FET) program.

What is the problem that ORCHID tackles? What is the solution?

Despite continuing new drug discoveries, a major healthcare problem is that there are still no drugs for many diseases, existing drugs do not work in all patients and side effects of drugs are often so severe that they are a leading cause of morbidity. One of the most important reasons for this is that conventional animal models used for research, and cell cultures (even when human) do not mimic the human body. In particular, the human heart, immune system, brain and reproductive system are completely different from those in animals. Aside from the limited predictivity for humans, animal experiments raise ethical issues, increasing societal and political pressure to reduce their number. This requires new ways to improve drug development and identify effective, possibly personalized treatments for patients.

Organ-on-Chip technology might contribute to solving these problems, especially when based on human cells, since they mimic human physiology much more closely than standard cell cultures on plastic substrates. In principle, Organs-on-Chips can represent human tissues and organs of healthy individuals or patients under normal or pathological conditions like those in the human body. The EU FET-Open project ORCHID , initiated by the Dutch Organ-on-Chip consortium hDMT, aimed to help Organs-on-Chips to move from the laboratory into real-life medical care.

How revolutionary is the outcome of ORCHID?

A unique outcome of ORCHID is the foundation of a European community on Organ-on-Chip technology. This was achieved by bringing together many key European players in this field and strengthening this community by establishing the European Organ-on-Chip Society (EUROoCS) in 2018. This is the first sustainable (not finance driven) infrastructure for Organ-on-Chip technology established to date.

EUROoCS is meant to be a forum for information and contact exchange among experts, development of end user guidelines and the formation of training networks. The ORCHID project provided an overview of the state-of-the-art and identified needs and challenges of Organ-on-Chip technology. This formed the basis for the development of future strategy in the form of a European Organ-on-Chip roadmap. As a follow-up to ORCHID, EUROoCS will facilitate the use of Organs-on-Chips in practice by stimulating ongoing dialogue between developers, end users and regulators.

What is the benefit of this technology and how can you assess this benefit?

For healthcare, Organ-on-Chip technology can be of benefit at three levels:

  • for drug development: faster identification of effective drugs and drug repurposing.
  • for patients: potentially personalized medicine by testing drugs on the patient’s own Organ-on-Chip. The hope is that this will eventually lead to more effective treatments, fewer negative side effects, fewer treatment failures, better prediction of disease onset.
  • for society: better, faster and cheaper health care because of better outcomes of drug treatment and fewer drug failures and reduction or refinement of animal experiments. The overall result could be a better quality of life at lower cost.

What is the expected impact on industry? Which are the industries that could be interested in this technology?

Healthcare systems are faced with the challenge of providing innovative treatments, whilst bearing high drug costs that pharmaceutical companies justify by their high expenditure on research and development. Organ-on-Chip is an emerging technology that could reduce these costs by increasing research and development efficiency and preventing unnecessary loss of useful drugs in the development pipeline. The technology could bridge the gap between preclinical testing and human trials through better predictive models and better safety profiles, significantly impacting the research and development costs. We conducted  an expert survey within ORCHID on the future role of Organ-on-Chip in drug discovery and its impact. Experts stated that they expect to see a reduction on the total research and development costs of up to 26%, in particular in the preclinical phases of drug development.  

In addition to the pharmaceutical industry, a number of examples for new potential customer segments was identified for which Organ-on-Chip technology is feasible and which might provide additional markets. These include among others the food industry (for testing allergenic potential of food ingredients), the cosmetic industry (for testing cosmetic products in particular because of the ban on animal use for skin and eye tests in Europe), the chemical industry (for testing hazardous effects of chemicals) and the veterinary industry (for testing household pet medications and medical treatments). The defense industry and government agencies also expressed interest in Organ-on-Chip models for the assessments of threats from biological or chemical weapons and for safety assessment of environmental compounds. These new market segments would allow the development of new business cases and models for Organ-on-Chip technology, thus extending the impact beyond the scope of drug discovery and development.

How does ORCHID intend to address the international scientific community working on the same issues in Europe and outside Europe?

EUROoCS is an international independent, non-profit organization that encourages Organ-on-Chip research and development and provides opportunities to share and advance knowledge and expertise in the field towards better health. Membership is open to individual researchers and others with an interest in Organ-on-Chip technology worldwide. The goal is to encourage researchers and others to join the growing community with view to accelerating the use of this technology in practice. With the support of EUROoCS, the Organ-on-Chip community will be well positioned to realize fast adoption of Organ-on-Chip models.

The annual conference in Europe and a pending society journal on Organ-on-Chip will highly contribute to achieving this through information exchange and collaboration between all relevant partners. The digital platform on the EUROoCS website is a protected area for EUROoCS members. This platform is expected to become the marketplace for Organ-on-Chip stakeholders, with individuals from a wide range of backgrounds benefitting from availability of Organ-on-Chip ideas and expertise, initiating specific working groups or discussing updated topics on Organ-on-Chip. Timely and up-to-date information regarding key publications, news, events and discoveries in the field of Organ-on-Chip as well as jobs and funding opportunities for research and innovation are accessible from the EUROoCS website.

How far is this technology to be widespread and to become standard? What are the main benefits for European citizens?

Though the Organ-on-Chip field is still in its infancy, there are several examples of Organ-on-Chip models that showcase the potential of this technology. These examples include among others detection of thrombotic risk in Vessels-on-Chip, discovery of targets for metastases in Cancer-on-Chip, test for kidney toxicity in Kidney-on-Chip, drug effects on Neurons and Glia cells-on-Chip, prediction of toxicity of nanoparticles in Lung-on-Chip and drug discovery in a disease model for Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS). These showcases are expected to encourage adoption of Organs-on-Chips by industry and acceptance by regulatory bodies as well as further development as animal alternatives.

However, as outlined in the Organ-on-Chip roadmap, the models still need to be properly qualified for their technological and biological performance, and their robustness and reproducibility demonstrated for a specific purpose. Since qualification, but also standardization, production and upscaling will accelerate the adoption of Organ-on-Chip technology, activities in this direction have the highest priority and have already been started. Among the first are 1) the design and implementation of a European Organ-on-Chip infrastructure with testing, training and data centers, resulting in independently qualified and characterized models, and 2) the development of open technology platforms to enable customized solutions for specific applications. This will guide end users in selecting the models best suited to their purpose and provide the training needed to create success. EUROoCS will initiate and catalyze these challenging processes.

How do you plan to communicate in order to make people understand what this technology can actually achieve?

The EUROoCS website is a platform that provides information for those interested in Organ-on-Chip technology, but in particular stimulates exchange and collaboration between academic and industrial partners or other stakeholders including regulators, clinicians and patient associations. Dissemination to the general public is already being achieved by social media or during global events and special meetings with children and high school students, to create awareness about the technology among potential next generation Organ-on-Chip researchers. In addition, evidence-based and easy to understand information about Organs-on-Chip is being disseminated via TV and You Tube channels. EUROoCS is coordinating the dissemination and communication activities such that expectations for Organ-on-Chip are realistically managed. EUROoCS will enable transparent communication with the general public on the use and potential impact of Organ-on-Chip technology, including ethical aspects.

Background information

ORCHID was selected for funding by FET Open Coordination and Support Actions (CSA) in 2017. FET Open and FET Proactive are now part of the Enhanced European Innovation Council (EIC) Pilot (specifically the Pathfinder), the new home for deep-tech research and innovation in Horizon 2020, the EU funding programme for research and innovation.