IBEC leads a European Project to evaluate drug response in organ-on-a-chip devices

A group of researchers from the Institute for Bioengineering of Catalonia (IBEC) leads the European project BLOC, an initiative led by researchers Javier Ramón and Irene Marco that seeks to evaluate the response to different drugs in metabolic diseases using organ-in-a- chip by using nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR). For this, the consortium will have a budget of almost 3 million euros, financed by the Horizon 2020 FET Open program.

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In this regard, during the next three years the project partners plan to develop a new hyperpolarized NMR-based technology integrated with organ-on-a-chip devices. Hyperpolarized NMR is a technique in development with a great future, and, to date, few groups worldwide have the necessary experience to use it regularly. It is an adaptation of the conventional NMR with the purpose of increasing the signal, lowering the detection limit and also minimizing the acquisition time. Its greatest advantage in the biological field is the ability to observe cell metabolism in real time in a non-invasive way. With this, it is possible to monitor metabolic diseases (for example, type 2 diabetes and fatty liver disease) to subsequently evaluate the response to certain drugs.

One of the project’s innovations will be adapting a bench-top NMR spectrometer to use it together with the organ-on-a-chip technology. These devices enable the analysis and NMR experiments to be carried out in any laboratory due to their small size and low maintenance compared to conventional equipment.

Concretely, the researchers plan to use the technology to evaluate a biomimetic multi-organ system critical to whole-body metabolism: liver spheroids and pancreatic islets. To do this, they will print tissues from these two organs using 3D bio-printing and will incorporate them into the “organ-on-a-chip” device, which aims to mimic the conditions found in the human body. They will also develop the necessary hyperpolarized NMR hardware and software to study metabolic diseases and for future drug screening applications.

“We are creating a platform to detect metabolic changes in real time, in situ and in a non-invasive way that can be used in any disease and organ-on-chip models” explains Irene Marco, researcher at IBEC and co-leader of the project together with Javier Ramón.

The project will have an impact on personalised medicine, because thanks to this new technology they will be able to test drugs using cells from the patients. One of the greatest challenges is to vascularize the organoid (make sure that the blood supply reaches all the 3D bio printed structures) for which they will use a technique known as microfluidics, which uses systems that process or manipulate small amounts of fluids through channels in order to study the response to different stimuli.

To date, the capability to miniaturise microfluidic systems and advanced tissue fabrication procedures have enabled researchers to create multiple tissues on a chip with a high degree of control over experimental variables.

“Developing this type of technology is always ambitious because it requires experts from different fields. The work of a young, prepared and motivated team like the one we have at IBEC, with the collaboration and financing of entities such as “la Caixa” Foundation and the European Commission are the best guarantee for obtaining important advances in a research line such as the one we are carrying out, that has a great future ahead” adds Irene Marco.

As well as IBEC, the BLOC consortium comprises the Consorci Institut D’investigacions Biomèdiques August Pi I Sunyer (IDIBAPS) in Spain, and two high-tech companies: Oxford Instruments (OI) in the United Kingdom and Multiwave Technologies AG (MW) in Switzerland.

The Kick-Off meeting of the FET-Open EU project BLOC (Benchtop NMR for Lab-on-chip) took place at the Institute for Bioengineering of Catalonia in mid-Jannuary gathering all the partners involved in the project. The project is funded under Horizon 2020’s FET Open Programme, which supports the early-stages of the science and technology research and innovation around new ideas towards radically new future technologies.