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Human intestinal epithelial cells cultured in the Wyss Institute's human gut-on-a-chip form differentiated intestinal villi when cultured in the presence of lifelike fluid flow and rhythmic, peristalsis-like motions. Here the villi are visible using a traditional microscope (left) or a confocal microscope (right); when the same villi are stained with fluorescent antibodies, it clearly reveals the nuclei in the intestinal cells (blue) and their specialized apical membranes when they contact the intestinal lumen (green). Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard UniversityRoughly the size of a computer memory stick and made of clear flexible polymer, the human gut-on-a-chip was created by Harvard Univ.’s Wyss Institute in 2012. Three years later, researchers are utilizing the technology in hopes of creating new therapies for inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD).

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that between 1 and 1.3 million people suffer from IBD, including such diseases as ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease. With origins still mysterious, IBD is currently incurable.

“It has not been possible to study…human intestinal inflammatory diseases, because it is not possible to independently control these parameters in animal studies or in vitro models,” wrote the researchers in Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences. “In particular, given the recent recognition of the central role of the intestinal microbiome in human health and disease, including intestinal disorders, it is critical to incorporate commensal microbes into experimental models, however, this has not been possible using conventional culture systems.”

Additionally, static in vitro methods fail to replicate the pathophysiology of human IBD.

But the hollow-channeled microfluidic gut-on-a-chip successfully simulates the human intestine’s physical structure, microenvironment, peristalsis-like motion, and fluid flow. 

“With our human gut-on-a-chip, we can not only culture the normal gut microbiome for extended times, but we can also analyze contributions of pathogens, immune cells, and vascular and lymphatic endothelium, as well as model specific diseases to understand the complex pathophysiological responses of the intestinal tract,” said Donald Ingber, founding director of the Wyss Institute.   

The device was “used to co-culture multiple commensal microbes in contact with living human intestinal epithelial cells for more than a week in vitro and to analyze how gut microbiome, inflammatory cells, and peristalsis-associated mechanical deformations independently contribute to intestinal bacterial overgrowth and inflammation,” the researchers wrote. 

Thus far, use of the device has yielded two interesting observations.

Four proteins—called cytokines—work together to trigger an inflammatory responses that exacerbate the bowel, the researchers found. Potentially, this new discovery could lead to the development of treatments that block the cytokine interaction.

Another observation, the researchers noted, is that “by ceasing peristalsis-like motions while maintaining luminal flow, lack of epithelial deformation was shown to trigger bacterial overgrowth similar to that observed in patients with ileus and inflammatory bowel disease,” according to the researchers.

The researchers believe the micro-device may one day be applicable to precision medicine. Eventually, a custom treatment may arise from scientists using a patient’s gut microbiota and cells on a human gut-on-a-chip. 

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