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Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Fighting Cancer, Boosting Fertility: The Promise of the First Female Reproductive System on a Chip

Draper, Northwestern University and University of Illinois create miniature, personalized reproductive system that reinvents drug testing and discovery for women 

CAMBRIDGE, MA—Females metabolize drugs differently from males, and yet historically females have been under-represented in drug trials. Justifiable concerns over the adverse effects drug tests could have on a woman who is or could become pregnant have kept women from participating. But the differences in the physiology between females and males have handcuffed scientists in their ability to accurately predict how safe or effective a drug will be in females.

Now, scientists have developed a miniature female reproductive tract that is the size of a smart tablet and could eventually change the future of research and treatment of diseases in women’s reproductive organs. The device was developed by Draper and is the subject of a research paper published in Nature Communications by a team of researchers from Draper, Northwestern University and the University of Illinois at Chicago.

The device resembles a small well plate and contains 3-D tissue models of ovaries, fallopian tubes, the uterus, cervix and liver with special fluid pumping through all of them that performs many of the functions of blood. The organ models are able to communicate with each other via secreted substances, including hormones, to closely resemble how they all work together in the body.

By developing a microfluidic device that contains living human cells capable of recapitulating organ-level functions, Draper aims to improve the way new drugs are tested to provide less costly, more accurate results that don’t have the potential to harm mothers or their fetuses. The device will help scientists understand diseases such as fibroids, endometriosis and cancer. 

“This is nothing short of a revolutionary technology,” said lead investigator Teresa Woodruff, a reproductive scientist and director of the Women’s Health Research Institute at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.  

The new technology works largely because the scientists developed a universal medium that acts in the same way as blood and circulates between each of the organ systems, noted Jeffrey T. Borenstein, Ph.D., Laboratory Technical Staff, Bio Systems and Tissue Engineering at Draper.

“With Teresa Woodruff’s research using Draper’s human organ system platform, we have a compelling demonstration of the importance of a microenvironment that permits cells to function in vitro as they would in vivo, and the power of being able to interconnect organ models on a platform and operate them in a stable and precise manner for weeks to months,” Borenstein said. 

Draper’s human organ system should be able to identify effective drugs and ineffective ones early in the drug discovery process, allowing developers to refocus resources on the strong candidates earlier and end unproductive research earlier, minimizing costs, according to Jonathan R. Coppeta, Ph.D., Distinguished Member, Technical Staff, Bio Systems and Tissue Engineering at Draper and co-principal investigator of the research published in Nature Communications.

“With Draper’s device, we have engineered an environment that mimics what actually happens in the body. Scaling these systems into a multiplexed architecture for individual or multiple organ models for diseases and toxicological studies, such as this study for the female reproductive system, will provide a significant benefit to the drug development process,” Coppeta said.

Single Organ Test Platform

Draper is developing several drug development platforms for the commercial market. The company recently announced a three-year agreement with Pfizer Inc. (NYSE: PFE) under which the companies will collaborate to create customized versions of Draper’s PREDICT96 system for Pfizer. PREDICT96 is a multiplexed (or high throughput) predictive single organ test platform. 

Video by Northwestern University

Video by Draper

Draper’s new drug discovery platform will help scientists understand diseases of the female reproductive tract such as endometriosis, fibroids, cancer and infertility. Draper's pioneering research is part of a larger NIH project creating the entire human “body on a chip.”
Capabilities Used

Draper has designed and developed microelectronic components and systems going back to the mid-1980s. Our integrated, ultra-high density (iUHD) modules of heterogeneous components feature system functionality in the smallest form factor possible through integration of commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) technology with Draper-developed custom packaging and interconnect technology. Draper continues to pioneer custom Microelectromechanical Systems (MEMS), Application-Specific Integrated Circuits (ASICs) and custom radio frequency components for both commercial (microfluidic platforms organ assist, drug development, etc.) and government (miniaturized data collection, new sensors, Micro-sats, etc.) applications.  Draper features a complete in-house iUHD and MEMS fabrication capability and has existing relationships with many other MEMS and microelectronics fabrication facilities. 

Biomedical Solutions

Draper’s Biomedical Solutions capability centers on the application of microsystems, miniaturized electronics, computational modeling, algorithm development and image and data analytics applied to a range of challenges in healthcare and related fields. Draper fills that critical engineering niche that is required to take research or critical requirements and prototype or manufacture realizable solutions.  Some specific examples are MEMS, microfluidics and nanostructuring applied to the development of wearable and implantable medical devices, organ-assist devices and drug-delivery systems. Novel neural interfaces for prosthetics and for treatment of neurological conditions are being realized through a combination of integrated miniaturized electronics and microfabrication technologies.

Materials Engineering & Microfabrication

Draper continues to develop its expertise in designing, characterizing and processing materials at the macro-, micro- and nanoscales. Understanding the physical properties and behaviors of materials at these various scales is vital to exploit them successfully in designing components or systems. This enables the development and integration of biomaterials, 3D printing and additive manufacturing, wafer fabrication, chemical and electrochemical materials and structural materials for application to system-level solutions required of government and commercial sponsors.

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