Emulate is testing drugs on tiny human organ chips

This article was first published in the May 2016 issue of WIRED magazine. Be the first to read WIRED's articles in print before they're posted online, and get your hands on loads of additional content by subscribing online. 

Geraldine Hamilton puts lungs on chips - and livers and guts too. Her biotech firm Emulate makes USB-sized devices that recreate the conditions inside organs, so cells react more realistically to stimuli than they would in a Petri dish.

"The level of functionality that we're able to get within these tiny chips allows us a window into human biology," says Hamilton, the startup's chief scientific officer. "We get an insight into the way that chemicals, drugs and cosmetics affect humans." 

The chips have been designed to mimic the surroundings of lung, liver and intestine cells. Lung cells, for instance, are contained in a channel where air is passed over them and liquid-carrying nutrients sweep by via a porous membrane below. A pump attached to the chip simulates the way these cells are pushed, pulled and squeezed in the body when we breathe.

Boston-based Emulate, which has raised $12 million (£8.5m) in funding, plans to release test kits this year, so scientists can try out the tech in lab conditions. The 35-person firm, a spin-off from Harvard University's Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering - where Hamilton first worked with Emulate CEO James Coon - is also collaborating with the Michael J Fox Foundation to study the safety of drugs to treat Parkinson's disease. Hamilton won't give a date when the products will be available, but suggests a launch is near. "In the next few years," she says. "Very soon."

Geraldine Hamilton will be speaking at WIRED Health on April 29.

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