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Organ Chip Devices to Model for Radiation Sickness

Organ on a chip

Organ on a chip (Wyss Institute, Harvard Univ.)

18 Oct. 2023. The U.S. government’s health preparedness agency awarded a contract with a university lab to explore organ models on chips to document effects of radiation sickness. The Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority or BARDA awarded the contract to the Wyss Institute, a biomedical engineering research center at Harvard University, valued at $15.2 million to support the agency’s medical countermeasures against radiological and nuclear threats.

BARDA, an agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services funds diagnostics, vaccines, drugs, and other therapies to protect public health and prepare for strategic threats from chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear weapons. Among the work supported by BARDA is preclinical studies of illnesses or injuries from these weapons, such as radiation sickness, known formally as acute radiation syndrome.

Radiation sickness can occur after a large, direct, and penetrating nuclear radiation exposure, as experienced by survivors of the atomic bomb explosions in Japan during World War II and first responders to the Chernobyl nuclear power plant fire in 1986. This exposure penetrates into the organs, depleting functional stem cells in tissue, and affecting bone marrow, gastrointestinal organs, and the central nervous and cardiovascular systems, with multiple life-threatening symptoms.

Legislation allows for animal testing alternatives

The Wyss Institute in Boston is a pioneer in developing lab-on-a-chip devices that simulate human organ functions. Language in the recently passed and signed FDA Modernization Act 2.0 allows for alternatives to animal testing in preclinical studies, such as microfluidic organ chips, small clear plastic devices with channels and wells lined with human cells. These chip devices, about the size of computer thumb drives, are designed to model and record actions of organ tissue under various conditions, bypassing scientific and ethical shortcomings of exposing animals to diseases or toxic experiences such as radiation exposure.

Under the BARDA contract, Wyss Institute researchers plans to simulate radiation exposure that can cause acute radiation syndrome on several organ chips, including models of human bone marrow, lungs, lymph nodes, and intestines, where effects on the gut microbiome will be studied. The team is expected to analyze organ responses at the molecular level with changes to DNA, RNA, and proteins, as well as effects on cells, tissue, and immune functions.

Donald Ingber, founding director of the Wyss Institute and lead investigator on the project, says in a statement that the BARDA award continues work for the Food and Drug Administration showing their organ chips can simulate human organs when exposed to radiation. “With this new expanded BARDA support,” says Ingber, “we will be extending this work to get insight into how radiation influences immune responses in the lymph node, and it will allow us to leverage these unique models in combination with A.I.-based computational discovery tools we have developed here at the Wyss, to discover new and more effective radiation countermeasure drugs”

Inber is also the scientific founder and advisor to Emulate Inc., a company in Boston advancing research by the Wyss Institute on organ chips. Science & Enterprise has reported several times on Emulate Inc., most recently in Oct. 2020 on the FDA’s use of organ chip devices from Emulate Inc. to test mechanisms for preventing Covid-19 infections, as well as other processes.

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