Organs on Chips: Researcher Creates Human Organs that Mimic Real Ones

By Bárbara Gutiérrez
UM News

Agarwal 2

Using traditional engineering materials, stem cells harvested from rodents and humans, and 3-D printing, Ashutosh Agarwal is creating artificial human organs that mimic the real things, providing researchers with a new way to study organ function and underlying disease pathways.

CORAL GABLES, Fla. (November 24, 2015) – Imagine a heart beating outside of the human body. Imagine that the organ acts just like the real thing but can be handled and studied like any other object. What possibilities would that create for physicians, scientists, pharmaceutical researchers, and other scholars?

Ashutosh Agarwal, assistant professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at the University of Miami, is ready to answer those questions. He is creating “Human Organs on Chips.”

In a revolutionary new approach, he combines traditional engineering structures such as metal or plastic with stem cells from rodents and humans to create a heart, pancreas, and lungs that mimic the real organ—including normal functioning and diseased organs. The chips, about the size of a USB stick or credit card, are created through 3-D printing and 3-D milling with intricate, precise measurements.

UM News spoke to Agarwal about his research. Here are some of his observations:

What excites you about this research?

Recreating human organ-level complexity in a dish, in both health and in disease, opens up several important applications. We can now test drug molecules before running clinical trials, dive deep into disease mechanisms, and create better stem cells for therapy.

What is the most important aspect of this approach?

Nobel Prize-winning American physicist and visionary Richard Feynman famously said: “What I cannot create, I do not understand.” By building models of human disease on a dish, we will enhance the understanding of the underlying disease pathways. Current projects include type 1 diabetes, stage IV lung cancer, cardiac diseases, and idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis.

What kind of response has there been to your research in the past?

The significance of this research endeavor has been well recognized by federal funding agencies such as the National Institutes of Health, and regulatory agencies such as the FDA, and received recent interest from pharmaceutical companies. The lab has received major grant funding from the NIH. I have served on “Placenta on a Chip” workshop organized by Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, “Wait What” conference organized by DARPA, as well as given a lecture at the “Futures of Cardiovascular Medicine” symposium by the American College of Cardiology (a primarily clinical conference).

Describe the process from being an idea to practicality.

We follow the engineering iterative process of Design –> Build –> Test.

Once we get interested in a disease model (typically through a clinical collaboration/announcement of a new funding initiative), we start with a physiology textbook. We study the template of how the body builds that organ and use that as a design template for our efforts in the lab.

In addition to mimicking the organ level structure, our devices allow evaluation of organ level function. We then populate these devices with cellular material sourced from human patients or stem cells. Based on the behavior of engineered tissues, we modify and optimize our devices. The last crucial step is validation by comparing our lab discoveries with clinical outputs.

Why is research in this area important (or relevant) for the average person?

Our tools will enable cheaper and faster drug development, discovery of therapies for some of the most intractable human diseases (such as type 1 diabetes, heart failure, lung cancer, and pulmonary fibrosis), and help make stem cell therapy a reality. Right now drug testing is first done on animals before it is approved for use on humans. That process is not always successful, and it is very expensive. We think we can make animal testing irrelevant.

What happens next?

The tools we are building in the lab need validation from two sources: clinicians, who are trying to understand and cure diseases, and pharmaceutical companies, who are developing new drugs. Validation from these two final ‘customers’ is the next step.

What’s the coolest thing about this development or something unexpected about it?

The interdisciplinary nature of the work. Currently, I am managing a group of folks with very different backgrounds and expertise. My postdoc has a Ph.D. in space propulsion, one of my technicians has a medical degree, and the other is a stem cell expert.

My master’s student is a chemical engineer with expertise in fluid transport physics. The three Ph.D. students are working on creating a Heart on a Chip, Diabetes on a Chip, and Pulmonary Fibrosis on a Chip. It’s a rich collaborative environment, and we learn from each other all the time!

The research is supported by the following: UM College of Engineering, Dr. John T Macdonald Foundation Biomedical Nanotechnology Institute at UM (BioNIUM); National Institutes of Health (Diabetes on a Chip); BioNIUM Research Award (Lung Cancer on a Chip), and UM-FIU Nanotechnology Award (Heart on a Chip).

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Inspired by Sight-Restoring Surgery, Patient Access Director Becomes Culture Coach


Natacha Caballero

A decade ago, Natacha Caballero came to the University of Miami as a temporary employee looking for an opportunity. Today, she serves as the director of patient access at the Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center. She also volunteers as a culture coach through the Building a Better U Together initiative. As a culture coach, Caballero has been trained to co-facilitate trainings with a Disney consultant and teach faculty and staff about our common purpose, values, leadership traits, and service standards. In this issue of DIRECCT Talk, Caballero shares what makes her tick.

Share a moment in your career when you realized the reach and impact of the University.

Years ago, while working at Bascom Palmer Eye Institute, I was able to witness a breakthrough discovery by Dr. Victor Perez, a cornea specialist. He used a blind woman’s tooth to restore her vision. After failed cornea transplant surgeries, Dr. Perez and other UM physicians successfully restored her vision after nine years. How incredible was this!!! I knew then I was working for an organization that was transforming lives even before the new common purpose was rolled out.

Share a moment when you felt most proud of working for UM.

I was part of The Essential’s of Leadership pilot program last year and was able to see how much dedication the U put forth to developing its leaders. I felt proud of working for UM because in the 10 years I have been here, I have seen many changes come and go and I have been a firm believer that one day we would get to this place and have programs like these to provide our leaders with the tools they need to do their jobs successfully. Earlier this year, I graduated from the program and even President Shalala attended the ceremony. That was a BIG deal! I was in awe of how much time and effort went into coordinating this event. I proudly posted my pictures on social media, and I was filled with pride to be a part of such an incredible organization. I decided at that moment I wanted to be an advocate for this change by becoming a culture coach. As a coach, I am able to not only promote new changes coming to the University but to be a driving force living the change and encouraging other members of the U to embrace it with optimism and positivity.

Share a story of a patient, student, colleague, or leader who has positively impacted your life.

There is only one person who comes to mind when I think about this question. I have worked with her for eight years after she recruited me to Patient Access. Kassandra Lage, my current executive director, has consistently demonstrated a positive attitude and acted as a role model throughout all these years. She not only exhibits enthusiasm in this field, she values ongoing learning and growth. Her approachability and ability to listen have been key in my development as I feel I can always count on her no matter how difficult the situation may be. In addition, she shares her knowledge and motivates me to teach and guide others as well.

Tell us why you chose UM, and why you choose to continue your career here.

The U has seen me grow professionally and mature as a leader. I started working here 10 years ago as a temporary employee and I am incredibly proud and honored to work in a place where growth is valued and possible. I choose to continue working here because I want to be part of the successes of our organization and continue to push it towards future growth and culture transformation.

DIRECCT Talk focuses on the ways faculty and staff exemplify the DIRECCT values—diversity, integrity, respect, excellence, compassion, creativity, and teamwork—that drive UM’s culture.


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DCC With Me: UM Cyclist Loves the ‘Amazing Feeling’ of Crossing the Finish Line

Special to UM News

Lisa Siegel

Lisa Siegel

Lisa Siegel says cycling across the finish line at the Dolphins Cancer Challenge is an amazing feeling. “When I get off my bike, cancer patients and survivors come up and hug me with tears in their eyes, thanking us for our support,” says Siegel. “If you are a University employee, I urge you to help our community by raising funds for our Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center and DCC with me!”

A grants accountant with the Office of Research Administration, Siegel is passionate about helping people with cancer. For the past four years, she has ridden her bicycle in honor of her grandmother, who died from the disease, and her aunt, who is a cancer survivor. “Cancer affects everyone, and our researchers at Sylvester are making tremendous strides,” she says.

A native of Miami, Siegel grew up in a loyal Hurricanes family. Her father, Marvin, began working at the University in 1961 and led the UM United Way campaign for many years. Her brother, Scott, and sister, Aimee, are also University employees and will be joining Lisa and her co-workers on Team Hurricanes in the DCC on Saturday, February 20 at Sun Life Stadium.

At the sixth annual DCC, Siegel plans to complete a 72-mile ride in honor of the Dolphins’ 1972 perfect season. Other options include different cycling routes, a 5K walk and run, and participating as a “virtual rider.” All funds raised by the DCC support Sylvester’s cancer research.

A longtime fan of the ’Canes and the Miami Dolphins, Siegel lets everyone know she’s a proud supporter of the DCC. “I talk to people on campus, on the phone, and online and let them know the importance of supporting our cancer research,” she says. “Every Friday I wear a Dolphins or Sylvester jersey to create more awareness of this great event. I encourage our employees to sign up for the DCC and reach out to others. You will be surprised by the generosity of your family, friends, and co-workers. All you have to do is ask!”

To learn more, please visit Dolphins Cancer Challenge.

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DCC Funds at Work: Sylvester Researcher Makes Progress against Childhood Leukemia

Special to UM News

Julio Barredo

Supported by DCC funds, Julio Barredo is trying to figure out why some children do not respond to usually effective treatment for leukemia.

Why do some children with leukemia respond well to treatment while others do not?

Noted cancer researcher Julio Barredo, M.D., professor and Toppel Family Chair in Pediatric Hematology-Oncology at Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center, is making progress in finding an answer to that life-and-death question.

“Today, we can cure more than 80 percent of children with acute lymphoblastic leukemia,” says Barredo. “By studying why treatments fail and why some patients relapse, our goal is to find strategies to save their lives.”

Barredo’s groundbreaking research is supported by funds raised by the Dolphins Cancer Challenge (DCC), which will be held on February 20, at Sun Life Stadium. The sixth annual DCC includes opportunities to ride, run, walk or be a virtual participant, with all funds going to Sylvester.

“Our work to understand childhood leukemia would be very difficult to do without the financial support from the DCC,” says Barredo, adding that 20 percent of funds raised each year is allocated for pediatric cancer research. “So far, we have received about $2 million in funding from the DCC.”

Currently, Barredo is focusing his research on how to block cancer cells from receiving the nutrients and energy they need to grow and multiply. His studies led to a recent clinical trial at Sylvester using Metformin, a diabetes drug that prevents cancer cells from processing and discarding their abnormal proteins, leading to cell death.

Working closely with Ronan Swords, M.D., Ph.D., the Pap Corps Endowed Professor in Leukemia and the leader of the adult leukemia program at Sylvester, Barredo discovered that pevonedistat, a compound tested in clinical trials for adult patients with acute myeloid leukemia, is also effective in fighting acute lymphoblastic leukemia in children.

“At Sylvester, we take a collaborative approach to leukemia research, and share our findings through an international consortium,” says Barredo. “Our goal is to translate our laboratory findings into new leukemia treatments for children and adults as rapidly as possible.”

To learn more about the DCC, visit www.TeamHurricanes.org and watch the “DCC with Me” video.

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Compassion Guides Patients’ Cancer Journey

Karen Henry

Karen Scanlon Henry

As a hematology-oncology nurse at Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center at Kendall, Karen Scanlon Henry touches people’s lives every day. “It is very rewarding for me to be able to help patients at one of the most vulnerable points of their lives, and guide them and their family members through their cancer journey.”

In her daily work, Henry says she focuses on the University of Miami Common Values of excellence, compassion, and teamwork. “At Sylvester, we deliver the highest level of care to cancer patients in a very compassionate way,” she says. “We also have a great team that goes above and beyond the call of duty to provide support to our patients and families. We educate them about their options and make sure they are well informed every step of the way.”

Since joining the Miller School of Medicine in 2002, Henry has worked in radiation oncology as well as medical oncology. In her current role, she helps train student nurse practitioners and has developed an Oral Chemotherapy Adherence Clinic. “Along with caring for patients, we are a revenue-producing department that supports other functions at UM, such as medical research,” she says.

A native of Miami, Henry grew up in Coral Gables in a ‘Canes family, going to UM football games every fall. “My dad went to the University of Miami and my mom worked at the law library,” says Henry, who earned her B.S. in nursing from UM in 1983 and her M.S. in nursing in 2004. Her son Erik is a senior engineering student at UM as well. “I’m one of those people who bleed orange and green,” she says.

Henry says she loves nursing because she can help patients and families in so many ways, while growing and developing as a health care professional. “I started at Jackson Memorial Hospital as a labor and delivery nurse,” she says. “Since then, I’ve been a school nurse, a pediatrics nurse, and a nurse manager, as well as working in oncology-hematology.”

Reflecting on her current role, Henry says she’s inspired each day by her patients, particularly those with terminal cancer. “Not everyone with cancer gets better, so we try to make each day of their journey as meaningful as possible for them,” she says. “With our team, they know they’re not alone.”

DIRECCT Talk focuses on the ways faculty and staff exemplify the DIRECCT values—diversity, integrity, respect, excellence, compassion, creativity, and teamwork—that drive UM’s culture.


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