The slightly unsettling, but entirely remarkable development, of a human organ on a microchip has won the Design Museum’s Design of the Year contest. It does not look like much but the small, thin sandwich of clear polymer is lined with human cells to mimic the behaviour of human tissue or an organ. It is small — but it is a cyborg.
Developed by Donald Ingber and Dan Dongeun Huh at Harvard University’s Wyss Institute, these new organs on chips will enable scientists and researchers to mimic responses to drugs and treatments in human tissue without recourse to animal or human testing.
The chip can be lined up in a special machine with others mimicking different human organs — lungs, hearts, livers and so on — to begin to suggest how an entire human body might respond to new treatments.
The cyborg will also, it is hoped, encourage the beginnings of personalised testing once stem cells from an individual are built up to imitate a real person’s responses.
As designs go, it may not appear too thrilling, barely bigger than a thumbnail or about the size of a USB stick and completely clear, except for a couple of colour-coded printed connections.
It is only after the addition of cultured human tissue to one side, blood or a liquid designed to mimic its actions on the other and a pair of vacuum channels to either side to imitate the pulsating of a human body, that it begins to make sense.
The invention has the potential to save millions in the testing process, to deliver far more accurate results and to reduce the use of vivisection — as well as allowing children’s responses to be measured in a way impossible with human subjects who must give their consent.
The purpose might seem benign, even revolutionary but it does also raise questions about the blurring of a line between the digital and the organic.
It might also, however, ask the question about how a nice chair or a coffee pot could ever win the prize again.
The dividing line between invention and design can be blurry and problematic yet it is also impossible not to agree with the judges that this is an astonishing design, pairing digital technology with living human tissue in a manner that evokes science fiction as much as it does modern science. It is a design that could have a real impact on human life.
The competition this year has been notable for hybrid entries which effortlessly and intriguingly cross categories, or even defy categorisation.
The organs on chips were up against Google’s self-driving car in the transport category, which could easily have competed in the digital or product categories, and an ambitious digital campaign to raise funds and awareness for a clean-up of rubbish in the ocean, which could equally have been a product nomination.