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The University of Twente will be taking part in a European research network to promote organ-on-a-chip technology. Organ-on-a-chip systems enable the recapitulation of human organ tissues on a very small scale. They are regarded as a future alternative to animal models and as a technology with great potential for pharmaceutical research and personalized medicine. Since the development of organ-on-a-chip systems requires skills and expertise from various disciplines, the primary aim of the EUROoC network is the interdisciplinary training of young scientists.
Organ-on-a-chip systems are microfluidic platforms integrating human tissue or organ building blocks. Thereby, they constitute in vitro models that reproduce biological processes in the human body, which can provide valuable new insights for basic biomedical research. Used as test systems, they can also help in the development and screening of novel pharmaceutical compounds and pave the way for personalized medicine. Organ-on-a-chip systems combine the unique selling points of classical cell assays (human genes and standardization) and animal models (3D tissues and circulation) and have the potential to significantly improve the transferability of preclinical results to later clinical phases. In this way, animal testing can be reduced, and the development of medical innovations can be made more economical, safer and faster.
The development and application of organ-on-a-chip systems requires the combination of different competences from various scientific fields – from biology and medicine to engineering and physics. These interdisciplinary requirements have led to the assembly of the EUROoC network, which will kick-off this fall funded by the EU under the highly competitive Marie Skłodowska-Curie Innovative Training Network (MSCA-ITN) programme. In this network, academic and industry scientists from all over Europe that are experts in various disciplines pool their strengths.
Eleven main contractual project partners, nine of whom are from the academic sector, one SME and one regulatory authority from the area of consumer health protection, are participating. In addition, ten partner organizations, three of which are academic institutions, five from the industrial sector and two regulatory authorities from the area of human medicinal products are part of the network.
One focus of the network’s work is on the interdisciplinary training of young researchers. “The next generation of researchers will be trained in all aspects of the development and application of organ-on-a-chip systems,” explains Jun.-Prof. Dr. Peter Loskill, the interdisciplinary minded physicist who heads the “Organ-on-a-chip” research group at Fraunhofer Institute for Interfacial Engineering and Biotechnology IGB, coordinating partner of the research network. “Besides scientific aspects, a further focus is on the education of researchers on how they can market their developments commercially and how they have to deal with regulatory and legal aspects. Ultimately, we want to contribute to strengthening Europe’s competitiveness in this emerging field of research.”
Researchers of the University of Twente’s TechMed Centre will be coordinating one of the work packages, as well as taking part in the training programme for young researchers. “The activities will strengthen the current research programme of the TechMed Centre on the development of a 'retina-on-a-chip' - a realistic microtechnical model of the retinal vasculature, containing human tissue and retinal cells, which can be used for the development of medication for eye diseases”, says Asst. Prof. Dr. Andries van der Meer, assistant professor at the Applied Stem Cell Technologies Group of the UT.
Under the EUROoC umbrella, the participating researchers will be working on joint projects with the aim to develop advanced organ-on-a-chip systems that recapitulate the properties of the organ tissues as realistically as possible regarding cell types, microenvironment and organ-specific tissue structure and function. In addition, concepts for interlinking individual organ systems to multi-organ-chips and for the integration of sensing elements are also being developed within the network.
The EU MSCA program is both very popular and very competitive, because of its bottom-up approach and scientific excellence. More than 1400 project consortia responded to the call for proposals in January 2018; the funding rate was well below ten percent. Fraunhofer IGB is responsible for overall coordination within EUROoC. The time frame is initially set at four years.