No more hassle from itching, skin rash, vague headache or stomach complaints. Highly accurate personal tests will predict your body’s response to certain food substances. This is possible thanks to the rapid development of organ-on-a-chip technology and high-tech analysis systems. Thanks to the new test, allergic reactions caused by food substances have become a thing of the past.
It is fascinating. Rapid developments in medical cell biology, organ-on-a-chip technology and analytical chemistry have taken place over the past two decades’, reflects Sabeth Verpoorte. Twenty years ago she was Professor of Analytical Chemistry and Pharmaceutical Analysis at the University of Groningen where she specialised in miniaturised total analysis systems based on microfluidic technology.
‘We worked on chips with microchannels. You can allow a wide range of processes to take place in these. If you link those channels to each other, you can integrate different process steps or tests into a single lab-on-a-chip system. These processes occur automatically, one after another, on a very small scale’, explains Verpoorte. ‘If we subsequently link such a chip to advanced analysis equipment, we can sensitively detect compounds and observe how these change in each process step.’ This can be done with chemical or enzymatic processes, but also with living cells and tissues from humans that simulate the functional working of an organ. This is the so-called organ-on-a-chip technology or, if all organs are linked, the body-on-a-chip technology.
‘With organ-on-a-chip technology, we can study the physiology of the body, how substances are converted in a certain organ or how other organs respond to those substances or their breakdown products’, explains Verpoorte. ‘For example, we developed a miniature digestive system on the chip in which the mouth, stomach and intestinal processing are sequentially simulated. We could also see which substances in the channel passed through the intestinal wall cell layer and ended up in the blood circulation.’ An allergy is a response of the immune system to foreign substances in the body. That response is highly individual, as each person has a different immune system. People with allergies often have a quite active immune system and therefore respond strongly to stimuli such as foreign substances in the digestive system. ‘It proved quite complex to develop a test that could predict an individual’s response to food’, says Verpoorte. ‘But with a single drop of blood from an adult you can obtain stem cells and let those differentiate into the cell types you are interested in, for example into intestinal cells or cells from the immune system. We use those cells to obtain accurate information about how the body responds to substances in products and therefore to protect the immune response for this specific person. Using this technique, a study was also performed to characterise the immune responses of a large group of people. These immune profiles form the basis for the design of our personalised test modules. With this approach, it was possible to incorporate a personal profile in the test to assess unknown or prepared food. This test is therefore the outcome of close collaboration between many disciplines.’
It is a superb addition to the series of personalised tests, such as those of personalised medicine that describes the effect, side effects and optimal dose of medicines. ‘With our organ-on-a-chip model, we can simulate the dynamic working of human organs and the entire body. Animal experiments have therefore become unnecessary for a wide range of safety tests on medicines, chemicals or substances for human consumption’, concludes Verpoorte. ‘Who would have thought that this would be possible 20 years ago?’ ↙