This 'Gut-on-a-Chip' Could Lead to Better Treatments for Intestinal Disorders

Dec 30, 2015

A UT researcher working with Harvard’s Wyss Insitute helped develop a new technique to create a small-scale model of the human gastrointestinal tract. All it requires is a silicon-based chip about the size of a thumb drive and, well, some poop.

This isn’t the first time a human organ has been put on such a small device. For years, the Wyss Institute has been focusing on these sorts of projects by creating small channels in the chips that are populated with the cells of the organs they emulate. So far, the lab’s pumped out replicas of hearts, kidneys and spleens in addition to the gut-on-a-chip, which was developed in late 2012.

A timelapse of peristalsis in the gut-on-a-chip.
Credit Wyss Institute

UT researcher Huyn Jung Kim says the device’s purpose, in part, is to help in the treatment and diagnosis of gastrointestinal disorders. All tests require samples of microbes from a patient’s gastrointestinal intestinal tract. Some of those tests use petri dishes and, Kim says, that more often than not leads to some level of cross-contamination. The existing tests utilize animal tissue for testing as well, which can make it hard to treat chronic swelling, an autoimmune response that’s specific to each patient’s intestines. That only becomes muddled when a patient’s samples mix with the tissue used in testing.

“The existing animal models are very, very difficult to independently control for these contributing factors,” Kim says. “But in our system…we can manipulate varying levels of complexity. Eventually, you can imagine, we can see the key contributing factor that causes this chronic inflammation.”  

The gut-on-a-chip’s vacuum-seal also offers a snapshot of someone’s gastrointestinal tract, allowing for in vitro testing and reliable simulations of the gastrointestinal cycle. One of the breakthroughs offered in Kim’s testing is that the chips can mimic peristalsis – the contractions in the small intestine that allow food to move through the tract.

Kim says that sort of simulation will lead to more personalized treatment.

“I can imagine at some point, to have your cells, your intestinal cells, your intestinal microbes, your immune cells. So, eventually I can play with them, I can culture them on the chip,” he says.

So, doctors could test out the best treatments for ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s Disease or irritable bowel disease prior to treatment. For example, a doctor could take your gut-on-a-chip and measure the effectiveness and viability of a fecal transplant or probiotic yogurt therapy to reduce intestinal inflammation.

The chips could also help pinpoint antibiotic-resistant cells, allowing doctors to quickly test the compatibility of donor and recipient cells.

Eventually, Kim says, the gut-on-a-chip could also help researchers test the effectiveness of experimental drugs at a much lower cost than current methods.