Emulate, Inc. is leveraging the Wyss Institute’s organs-on-chips technology to mimic human organs in vitro, enabling faster, better, and cheaper drug development and insights into human health.
Drug development is notoriously slow and expensive – it can take up to 10 years and cost more than $3 billion to bring a new compound from the lab bench to market. A major cause of this inefficiency is the traditional reliance on testing drugs in animals before they are tested in humans. Animal models often do not accurately reflect human physiology, meaning that drugs that appear to be safe and effective in animals frequently turn out to be harmful or ineffective in humans. This mismatch in biology causes many useless or toxic drugs to advance through clinical trials at great expense, while potentially effective compounds never make it to market. A better way to model human biology and diseases in vitro is needed to accelerate the development of new drugs and personalized medicine.
A multidisciplinary team of Wyss Institute researchers and collaborators have adapted computer microchip manufacturing methods to create “Organs-on-Chips” (Organ Chips): microfluidic culture devices that recapitulate the complex structures and functions of living human organs. These microdevices are composed of a clear flexible polymer about the size of a USB memory stick that contains hollow microfluidic channels lined with living human organ cells and human blood vessel cells. These living, three-dimensional cross-sections of human organs provide a window into their inner workings and the effects that drugs can have on them, without involving humans or animals.
Donald Ingber, M.D., Ph.D., the Wyss Institute’s Founding Director, was inspired to create Organ Chips in 2007 after watching a demonstration of a “lung-on-a-chip” that contained channels the size of human lung airways but no living cells. When the student that did that work, Dan Huh, later joined Ingber’s lab as a postdoctoral fellow, Ingber challenged the two of them to bring the idea to life.
They set about figuring out how to create a molecular scaffold inside microfluidic channels that could support multiple living cell types to recreate the tissue interfaces found in lung air sacs. After much trial and error, they successfully created a living human lung-on-a-chip and published an article in Science about it in 2010.
With additional grant support from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and National Institutes of Health (NIH), Ingber and his team at the Wyss Institute developed more than fifteen different Organ Chip models, including chips that mimic the lung, intestine, kidney and bone marrow. They also refined and validated Organ Chips’ potential for impact by demonstrating that Organ Chips could replicate the effects of existing drugs and be used to develop new drugs for human diseases. In addition, the DARPA effort supported the engineering of an instrument that automates chip operations and fluidically links multiple Organ Chips together to create a “Body-on-Chips” that can reveal how drugs impact multiple organ systems and predict the dynamic changes in drug levels that occur in human patients’ blood.
Just four years after the publication of their first paper describing living Organ Chips, a group of Wyss Institute researchers launched Emulate, Inc. in 2014 to further develop and commercialize Organ Chip technology, bringing these important research tools to market. Emulate’s Organ-Chips have been installed in more than 150 labs including 17 of the top 25 global biopharmaceutical companies, used by the FDA to study the safety of COVID-19 therapeutics and vaccines, and even used in experiments in space. Through multiple collaborations with companies like AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson, Organ-Chips are being used identify species-specific toxicities, enabling more accurate predictions of a drug’s effects on humans. Since its launch, Emulate has raised more than $200M in funding, including an $82M Series E round led by Northpond Ventures. Emulate was also named by Fast Company as one of 10 Most Innovated Biotech Companies of 2022.
The Wyss Institute is now using Emulate’s Organ-Chips to conduct vital research on a wide range of human diseases and possible treatments for them, including COVID-19, influenza, malnutrition, radiation exposure, and cystic fibrosis. In addition, Organ Chips have been awarded the overall Design of the Year 2015 Award, acquired by The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) of New York City for its permanent collection, named a Top 10 Technology of 2016 by the World Economic Forum, and featured in museums around the world including the Barbican Centre, Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum, and the Martin-Gropius-Bau Design Museum.
Data from preclinical studies using the Wyss Institute’s Human Alveolus Chip were included in Cantex Pharmaceuticals’ Investigational New Drug (IND) application to the FDA to initiate Phase 2 clinical trials for a drug it licensed from Harvard University to treat COVID-19. This achievement paves the way for expanded use of Organ Chips in the drug development and approval process.