Cardiovascular diseases are the leading cause of death worldwide. Organ-on-a-chip technology is a promising breakthrough in the quest to find out more about these diseases and in testing new drugs to fight them. Prof. Christine Mummery and Prof. Robert Passier, both of whom combine their work at Leiden University Medical Centre with recent appointments at the University of Twente, are dedicated to improving patient care using organs-on-a-chip. This is an interdisciplinary field par excellence: cooperation is essential. On 10 March, the two professors will deliver their inaugural address at the University of Twente.
Despite the development of improved methods to treat cardiovascular diseases, these life-threatening conditions are still very difficult to cure. Research into diseases and drug development employs a variety of testing systems, ranging from laboratory animals to animal cells in culture dishes. The disadvantage is that these often differ greatly from human systems; the heart of a mouse beats 500 times a minute, for example, a very different proposition to the human heart rate of 60 beats a minute.
Organs-on-a-chip, made from patient’s own genetic material, could be a godsend. With an organ-on-a-chip, the structure and the development of an organ can be simulated on a small scale as accurately as possible. The chip on which the organ is placed uses micro-channels to supply cells with blood, nutrients, and, possibly, drugs. This set-up also allows researchers to make accurate measurements in the organ.
In order to develop these tiny organs we need stem cells: these are special cells that have the potential to develop into many different types of tissue. The development of induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS cells) – normal cells which have been ‘reprogrammed’ to be stem cells – has provided an important impetus for the field. These stem cells are free of the ethical concerns associated with the use of embryonic stem cells, while making it possible to cultivate organs from the patient’s own material. Ultimately, organs-on-a-chip should lead not only to greater knowledge of diseases and to new medicines but also to a significant reduction in the number of laboratory animals needed to carry out scientific medical research.
Mummery and Passier are regarded as international authorities in the field of stem cell research. The development of organs-on-a-chip, however, is a prime example of a multidisciplinary field in which the latest insights from stem cell biology, microfluidics, engineering, materials science and genetics all come together. This requires close cooperation, not only between scientists from different disciplines but also with partners from industry. Passier and Mummery, both researchers at Leiden University Medical Center (LUMC), have accepted an additional position at the University of Twente with the aim of bringing together disciplines and establishing long-term cooperation between the two institutions. Stimulating cooperation and joining forces is also a driving force behind hDMT, the Institute for Human Organ and Disease Model Technologies, of which Prof. Mummery is head. This initiative involves nine research institutes and industrial partners which share the goal of ensuring that the Netherlands is at the forefront of organ-on-a-chip technology.
INAUGURAL LECTURE AND SYMPOSIUM
Passier and Mummery will deliver their inaugural speech on 10 March at 16.00 in the Prof. M.P. Breedveld room of the Waaier building on the University of Twente campus. The event will be open to members of the public. Prior to this academic ceremony, on 9 and 10 March, the hDMT will organize the first International Organ-on-chip Symposium. This symposium will bring together international scientists and engineers working in the field of organ-on-a-chip technology to share the latest knowledge and insights on the University of Twente campus.
MUMMERY AND PASSIER
Prof. Christine Mummery is Professor of Developmental Biology and head of the Department of Anatomy and Embryology at LUMC. Since 1 September 2015 she has been combining this work with a part-time appointment (0.2 FTE) as Professor of Vascular Microfluidics Technology in the new department of Applied Stem Cell Technologies at the University of Twente. This department is part of the University of Twente’s MIRA research institute. Mummery specializes in stem cell biology, with a particular focus on blood vessels. Her track record is impressive. For example, she was the first Dutch researcher to succeed in making iPS cells.
Since 1 September 2015, Robert Passier has been Professor of Applied Stem Cell Technologies and head of the department of the same name at the University of Twente (0.8 FTE). In addition, Passier continues to work at LUMC’s Department of Anatomy and Embryology. Passier’s impressive track record centres on stem cell biology with a focus on the heart.