Dr. Ben Maoz is a fellow at the Wyss Institute at Harvard University, conducting research with both Prof. Kit K. Parker and Prof. Don. E. Ingber at the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS). Soon he will also run the Maozlab at Tel Aviv University’s school of biomedical engineering. His goal is to understand complex human systems through the introduction and study of minimal synthetic human models. He mainly focuses on Organ-chips, and brain in-vitro models by developing and using novel in-vitro models to study brain physiology in steady and disease states.
Watch this video below for an introduction to the technology Dr. Maoz is working on called Organs-on-a-chip or Organ-Chips.
The following has been paraphrased from an interview with Dr. Ben Maoz on January 19th, 2018.
(Click here for the full audio version)
Could you introduce what Brain-Chips (brains-on-a-chip) are and how they might give us better models of the brain?
It comes from the concept of Organ-Chips, which came from a need to make drug development, which is currently a very tedious, time consuming, and expensive process, more efficient. More than 60% of drugs fail because the models that we try them out on do not accurately represent the human body. Organ-Chips give us a better human model by taking micro-fluidic chips, roughly the size of a USB stick, and mimicking the functionality of human organs using human cells. For example, if I want to build a heart, I can take human heart cells and use them to build a pump, similar to that of a heart, on these chips. We can do the same with kidneys or livers and then also connect them to see how medication for the heart might affect one of these other organs. One aim is to use this in personalized medicine by taking a patient’s own skin cells and converting them into any cell type we want. In order to make patient specific organ-chips, which will enable us to see what effects a drug will have on an individual.
With brain-chips we are taking the brain, which is a very complex system, and simplifying it by breaking it into different components. We have more than 250 unique regions in the brain with different structures and functions. We are creating different regions and connecting them to see how stimulating or damaging one region affects other regions. We can also see the effects that the blood brain barrier (BBB) has on different regions by removing this barrier and seeing the interactions that take place.
When it comes to brain diseases, the problem is that our brains are very unique and we are the only animals that naturally get these neurodegenerative conditions. This makes it very difficult to study these diseases. But brain-chips allow us to build more accurate models to better simulate brain environments and speed up the development of therapies to combat these neurodegenerative conditions.
How long have brain-chips been in development and how widespread is this technology?
The concepts of organ-chips is less than 10 years old and today there are a dozen or so labs around the world working on them, each specializing in different regions. There are only a handful of other labs working on brain-chips because of how challenging the brain is, but we have started to produce these chips on a wider scale to make this technology more available to the public through a company called Emulate, among others. Our chips are unique in that they have two channels, one for parenchymal cells (the functional parts of an organ) and the other for vasculature (blood vessels). All of the development of brain-chips is only about 4-6 years old so this industry is still just at the very beginning.
What do you think the applications of this technology will be 10-20 years down the road?
In addition to helping us speed up drug development and discovery, I hope that in time we will be able to create a “mini-you”, where we will take your cells and grow your own organ-chips to test drugs on before giving them to you. This could really open up personalized medicine and have a tremendous impact on healthcare by greatly improving how we prescribe medicine and treat diseases.
Do you see this technology ever developing to the point where we can emulate the brain, and maybe a person’s consciousness, on a chip?
I don’t know what will come, currently we don’t really know how the brain works. We have 85 billion neurons and 85 billion supporting cells with over 100 trillion connections between them, and we don’t even know how they function. It is hard to create something when we don’t even know how it works. But there are groups trying, there is one in Australia that engineered neurons to be able to control a flight simulator. People are trying to build tools that can think, but the challenges are immense. I hope it will happen, but I can’t say when or if it will happen.
For more on Organs-on-Chips listen to this great talk from Prof. Donald Ingber or click here to learn more about Dr. Maoz’s work.