The microfluidic chip on a microscope stage, here filled with food dye to show the fluidic channels.

Moving towards tailored medications

Using microfluidic chips and stem cells, physicist Amin Banaelyan creates human tissue and then tests the effects of various medications on this tissue. The objective of the project, called Organo Vitro, is to develop technology that can be used easily in the future to tailor medications for individual patients.

All test models currently used for ensuring that newly developed medications are not health hazards have their disadvantages. Using laboratory animals is not only expensive and an ethically complicated issue, a medication that works well on animals can prove to be dangerous for people.

Using people instead can be risky. In France there is an ongoing court case in which test subjects for a medication ended up in a coma. And even when pharmaceuticals have been tested and released on the market, it is no guarantee that they are harmless to humans. Different people react differently to the same medication, and it is still not possible to foresee all possible side-effects when a patient combines several medications.

“In recent years we have gained better opportunities for discovering and understanding whether a drug may have adverse effects on a patient, something that may have been overlooked previously,” says Amin Banaelyan, PhD student in the Department of Physics. “However, we have examples of medications that brought to market and then soon thereafter discovered to have damaging effects on humans and that were quickly pulled from the market.”

When Japanese researcher Shinya Yamanaka discovered that mature cells could be reprogrammed into pluripotential stem cells, that is, cells that can develop into essentially any other cell in the body, this opened the door for developing advanced pharmaceuticals. In 2012 Yamanaka received the Nobel Prize for medicine for his discovery.

“We can take cells from a patient, reprogram them into mature stem cells and in this way grow them into, for example, liver or heart cells,” says Banaelyan. “We can then test out different types of pharmaceuticals on these cells.”

These tests are done using the microfluidic chip that Banaelyan has developed. A microfluidic chip is a thin plastic chip containing tiny channels. Extremely simplified, the cells from one organ are placed in the chip and human tissue is created. The researchers can then pump different substances into the channels in the chip and through the cell to see how it reacts to them.

The cells he has worked with come from the liver, however, the system also works well with cells from other organs, such as the heart and the kidneys. The reason he chose to work with liver cells is that the liver is a metabolic organ that cleans the body and its functions include breaking down pharmaceuticals.

“Say a patient has a heart problem and there are a number of approved heart medicines available on the market. Imagine that one of these medicines damages this patient’s liver. Using this technology, in the future it would be possible to test all of these medicines on the patient’s own liver cells and see which of them was the most suitable for this particular patient.”

A patent application has been submitted for the microfluidic chip. Banaelyan hopes it will eventually be possible for biologists and toxicologists to easily use the chip in a laboratory environment to tailor the right medical treatment for the patient.

“One idea is that it will eventually be possible to make the chip using a 3D printer.”

Amin Banaelyan

Amin Banaelyan

Similar research is being done using other cell models. Eventually, it will be possible to combine different models to study whether a medication that does not adversely affect heart cells is also harmless for the liver.

Mattias Goksör is Banaelyan’s supervisor and collaborates with him on the Organo Vitro project. He believes there will be a significant increase in these types of solutions for medical research in particular.

“Gothenburg is full of biotech companies that have been attracted to the city because AstraZeneca and Mölnlycke Health Care are here, and they represent a fantastic network in which to test research ideas.”

Goksör points out that as his thesis supervisor, he is proud of Banaelyan’s research and what he has achieved. He feels it is fairly unique for a PhD student to apply for a patent and plan to eventually launch a company based on research results before having completed a dissertation.

“Amin has ambitious plans and a personality that is well suited to persuading others of the merits of his research idea, as he demonstrated when he won ‘Best Pitch’ awards at the Chalmers Venture Startup Camp Batch 8.”