DARPA, a research arm of the United States Department of Defense, has supported the development of some extremely influential technologies since it was founded in 1958. The Internet is perhaps the most famous, but there are many more — like GPS, computer speech recognition, and dog-like robots.
The agency was fundamental to our start, too.
Our Organ-Chips were first conceived in an academic lab at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University. As its name suggests, the institute focuses on developing engineering solutions that use design principles found in the natural world. And in 2011, our founders at the Wyss Institute began a collaboration with DARPA that was supported by a grant of 37 million dollars.
DARPA has a reputation to ask for the impossible, and the objectives they set for us were immense challenges. For this project, the agency tasked Wyss researchers with developing 10 different Organ-Chips and linking them together with the goal of emulating a human. The agency saw our technology as a way to quickly develop and test treatments in response to potential biological or chemical attacks.
Daniel Levner, our Chief Technology Officer, believes that the collaboration with DARPA was essential to developing our technology to the point it is today. “The project was a challenging real-life test of our engineering and design philosophy,” Levner says. “When we’re working on a new system, we like to start with a minimum set of features, make sure those work correctly, and then build on them step-by-step to add functionality.”
The agency has high expectations for a reason, says Josiah Sliz, one of our engineers who worked on the project: “It may sound trite to say, but DARPA buys into the thinking that if you aim for the stars you’ll hit the moon.”
“They know that it might not be possible to meet every objective they set,” Sliz says. “But in the effort we learned a lot about our technology, which allowed us create a platform that can be used for drug development and can improve our understanding of human biology.”
From Idea to Innovation
As our team progressed on the project, they developed different Organ-Chips exponentially faster, said Chris Hinojosa, Director of Discovery. “It was interesting because the Lung-Chip probably took four years to develop. The Intestine-Chip took two years, and we had a working model of the Small Airway Lung-Chip in under a year.”
“By starting with a system that is as simple as possible, we can add complexity as we find necessary,” Hinojosa said. “That way we have control over the variables and can add or remove variables to see how they contribute to response.”
While DARPA sets wildly ambitious goals, they aren’t necessarily interested in how you achieve them. “The way something is engineered is simply a means to an end for DARPA,” Sliz said.
The collaboration helped to bring our platform to a state today where it’s contributing to the fields of drug and product development. And unlike traditional testing models — like cell culture or animals — our Human Emulation System more accurately recreates human biology outside the body. “We’re not only answering questions better,” Sliz says, “but we’re also answering better questions. Today we cannot only determine if a drug is toxic, but we can also determine why it’s toxic and how it reacts with the human body.”
“So going from the chip to human, from data to answers,” Sliz adds. “It’s one of the things we like to say.”
Though we have left academia and are now working to validate our technology for use in fields of pharmaceutical and product development, our designers, biologists, and engineers continue to work with the Wyss Institute and DARPA. And as we proceed with the collaboration, we believe that we will gain greater insights about how to improve and develop our platform to even more accurately emulate human biology.