DoD’s ‘Organ-on-a-Chip’ Innovation Wins Big

26562977435_110c63077e_b The full PuLMo artificial lung system in operation. (Courtesy: DTRA)

By Yolanda R. Arrington
DoD News, Defense Media Activity

These days, we want everything smaller. From cell phones to computers, the trend is to get as mobile and pocket-sized as possible. That trend isn’t just for our digital gadgets; scientists are also aiming for smaller tools and devices.

Researchers have created a miniature artificial lung that acts just like a real lung when exposed to drugs and toxins. Their recreated lung was recently named among one of the 100 most technologically significant products of 2016.

A product of R&D Magazine (research and development), the R&D 100 Awards are often called the “Oscars of Invention” because they highlight the top technology products of the year. The Defense Threat Reduction Agency’s Joint Science and Technology Office funded work on the Pulmonary Lung Model, or PuLMo, which recently took home one of the R&D 100 Awards. The Los Alamos National Laboratory and Wake Forest University worked under DTRA contract to develop PuLMo and other human organs as part of the eX-vivo Capability for Evaluation and Licensure program, commonly called “organ-on-a-chip.”

What is PuLMo?

The PuLMo alveolar unit is readied for testing. (Courtesy: DTRA)

The PuLMo alveolar unit is readied for testing. (Courtesy: DTRA)

PuLMo is a miniature, tissue-engineered lung that revolutionizes the screening of new drugs or toxic agents. Currently, screening methods may not always accurately predict how a drug or agent will interact with the body in humans. PuLMo changes that. It gives researchers the ability to assess, in real-time, how human organs react to various drugs.

How does PuLMo work?
PuLMo works by incorporating cells that mimic the human airway. The Los Alamos team made two submodels of bronchiole and alveoli to recreate a human’s airway. The first focuses on tissue engineering and co-culture of multiple cell types along with breathable membranes. The second model works to mimic the air-flow dynamics of the human lung by recreating the branching of the late generations of the respiratory bronchiole and the alveolar sacs from a human lung. These submodel units are connected on a microfluidic chip, called the Fluid Circuit Board, which helps manage the flows of air and tissue media.

Both submodels co-culture at least three different cell types from three different regions of the lung and include several physiological characteristics, such as mucus production and cyclic stretching of membranes.

PuLMo mimics the lungs’ response to medications allowing researchers to quickly test multiple compounds without extensive animal testing yet in a human environment.

“Historically, drug trials have been done in many different types of animals. Some of them have passed animal testing, but in human trials they’ve failed or even killed people,” said Jennifer Harris of Biosecurity and Public Health at Los Alamos.

This innovation is a big step in reducing animal use, acquiring human data, and improving researchers’ understanding of compound liabilities and toxic agent’s interactions with the human body.

How will PuLMo benefit the military?

Dr. Ronald Hann, director of the Joint Science and Technology Office at the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, examines the liver module of the eX-vivo Capability for Evaluation and Licensure project at Los Alamos National Laboratory. (Defense Threat Reduction Agency Chemical and Biological Technologies Department photo)

Dr. Ronald Hann, director of the Joint Science and Technology Office at the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, examines the liver module of the eX-vivo Capability for Evaluation and Licensure project at Los Alamos National Laboratory. (Defense Threat Reduction Agency Chemical and Biological Technologies Department photo)

Scientists can use PuLMo to study how particles flow inside the lung. Flow dynamics are essential in researching how drugs, agents, smoke and other fumes affect the lungs, which could prove vital for devising targeted medical countermeasures for the warfighter.

This technological feat could save lives and money by allowing new drugs to be screened more effectively and reliably for their toxicity, as well as enabling better prediction of a new drug’s efficacy in humans. Also, the PulMo model makes some previously impossible human threat agent assessment possible for DoD.

The 2016 award for this technological advancement highlights the work that DTRA is doing to keep military science on the cutting edge.

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