A tiny chip that mimics the human organs has beaten Google's self-driving car to win a prestigious design prize.
The Human Organs-On-Chip project won the Design of the Year award from London's Design Museum and could prove to be a breakthrough in trialing medicines and ending animal testing.
Designed by Harvard University's Wyss Institute, the device is no bigger than a thumb drive and the first product to come out of the project is called lung-on-a-chip.
The device is manufactured in a similar way to how semiconductor manufacturer would design a smartphone chip. The manufacturing process creates a small block of plastic with microchannels running through it. Within those tubes a porous membrane is lined with human lung and blood vessel cells. This layer of membrane and cells separate a liquid that contains white blood cells – needed to destroy infections in the body – and a space that contains bacteria cells.
The microchannels are able to expand and contract – just as lungs. The white blood cells pass through the membrane and attack bacteria, replicating what happens in the human body. Researchers would then be able to introduce different infections to the chip to see how the body would react.
As a result, Harvard's researchers said the tiny device could be "transformative".
"The microdevices have the potential ability to deliver transformative change to pharmaceutical development and human healthcare due to the accuracy at which they emulate human organ–level functions," the university said in a press release.
"They stand to significantly reduce the need for animal testing by providing a faster, less expensive, less controversial and accurate means to predict whether new drug compounds will be successful in human clinical trials."
The organ-on-a-chip was originally designed by Wyss Institute founder Donald Ingber and former Wyss technology development fellow Dan Dongeun Huh in 2010. Last year, Harvard's scientists created a company called Emulate to commercialize the project. Last week, Wyss signed a deal with pharmaceutical company Janssen to deploy the chips in the firm's research.
U.S. government statistics show that 891,161 animals were used in research in 2013, a 6.5 percent drop from 2012. Science organizations said that while animal testing has been key in giving us many modern medicines, researchers will welcome alternatives.
"These exciting new technologies show where animal use could be further reduced in the future. Nobody uses an animal thoughtlessly or out of habit, and researchers will welcome non-animal alternatives as they become available," Chris Magee, head of policy at the not-for-profit organisation Understanding Animal Research, told CNBC by email.
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Ingber and his team have also developed other organ-on-chips such as the gut, liver and kidney. The design beat off competition from Google's autonomous car and a project to clean plastic waste from the ocean.
The Wyss Institutes chips were praised by the Design Museum for "putting technology from apparently unrelated fields to work in new ways".
"The team of scientists that produced this remarkable object don't come from a conventional design background. But what they have done is clearly a brilliant piece of design," Deyan Sudjic, director of the Design Museum said in a press release.