Photograph by REBECCA HALE, NGM STAFF
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The organ-chip above is 35 millimeters long and 15 millimeters wide.

Photograph by REBECCA HALE, NGM STAFF

How ‘Organs on a Chip’ Will Revolutionize Medicine

Scientists can now do research on live human organs without petri dishes or animal testing.

This story appears in the September 2017 issue of National Geographic magazine.

Before, it was inconceivable: risk-free biomedical testing on living human organs. But new “organs-on-chips” technology is emulating the liver, brain, lungs, intestines, and more on a chip the size of a USB stick. Until now scientists conducted most biomedical research through animal testing—which often doesn’t translate to humans—or in a petri dish, a static environment that doesn’t let cells behave as if they are in the human body.

The organ-chip consists of transparent channels lined with thousands of living cells and pumped with liquid containing nutrients, or blood, all interacting just as they would in the body. It’s a “home away from home, a window into human biology,” says Geraldine A. Hamilton, chief scientific officer of organ-chip developer Emulate, Inc. The chips have been used to test drugs’ impact on organs and to replicate diseases like asthma.

The next frontier: custom chips that imitate a person’s unique biology—or, as Hamilton puts it, “you on a chip.”

Watch Organ Chips in Action