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Breakthrough “organs-on-chips” named best design of 2015 in London

The London Design Museum gave its top honour, Design of the Year 2015, to polymer micro-devices known as “organs-on-chips.” Created by two Harvard University scientists, the devices can be lined with human cells from various organs and mimic the structures and functions of those organs. They are intended to be used for testing drugs, cosmetics and for treating infections and other diseases. Their use could end the controversial practice of using lab animals for drug testing.

It may seem an odd choice for a design award, particularly since few people outside of medical labs will ever see one of the devices. Yet the organs-on-chips design beat out short-listed contenders like the Google self-driving car for the top award, and they were nominated by no less than the Museum of Modern Art’s senior architecture and design curator, Paola Antonelli. She called them the “epitome of design innovation” and praised their “elegantly beautiful form, arresting concept and pioneering application.”

The director of the London Design Museum agreed, while acknowledging that the scientists who created the devices were not designers, per se. What they created, nevertheless, “is clearly a brilliant piece of design.” They solved a scientific problem—how to predict how human cells will behave in certain circumstances—and solved it “with elegance and economy of means.” The jury that selected the winner included an artist, an architect. an industrial designer, a fashion writer and the director of a Swiss school of art and design.

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Personalized medicine will use patient’s own cells to test drugs

The scientists created their award-winning work at Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering. The devices can mimic, for example, the structure and function of a living human lung. The lung device has lung cells and capillary cells so that the process of breathing can be simulated and the behaviours of drugs, and bacteria, and blood cells can be monitored in new ways. According to the director of the Wyss Institute, the organs-on-chips allow researchers to see biological mechanisms and behaviours that were previously unknown.

A key benefit is that scientists can see molecular activities that occur in human cells but do not occur in animal cells. When drugs are tested on animals, the results vary from dogs, to cats, to mice. With the chips, the test results will be specific to humans. It will also be faster and cheaper to use the chips.

The next step is to create chips using the individual patient’s tissue, enabling a newly personalized form of treatment that is patient specific. A drug could be tested on that patient’s tissue, not on a lab animal’s tissue or some statistically average person. Being able to learn quickly whether a treatment will be effective could save time, and lives.

An array of chips, each mimicking a different organ, can be assembled in a network that simulates an entire human body. This will allow researchers to observe the effect of a drug on the body’s different organs as it works its way through, from ingestion to metabolism to excretion.

The curator of the Designs of the Year exhibit now on display at the Design Museum said that this year’s winner signifies their desire to recognise design that can significantly impact society.

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