When it comes to medical breakthroughs, the most exciting advances tend to involve technology that can lead to better and earlier diagnoses of various health problems, but breakthroughs that save animals are pretty good too. A team of Harvard University researchers has done just that by developing an entirely 3D-printed “heart-on-a-chip” that may some day eliminate animal testing in medical research. The innovation, which makes it possible to monitor heart performance, is the latest in a medical technology trend of building functional, synthetic replicas of living human organs in an effort to better understand how they work, or—more to the point—how they fail.

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Each organ-on-a-chip (also known as a “microphysiological system”) is constructed from a translucent, flexible polymer. The 3D-printed organs mimic the biological environment of our internal organs, and give scientists an up-close look at how they function. The heart-on-a-chip developed at Harvard can help researchers collect reliable data for short-term and long-term studies. Because the device is 3D-printed, scientists can easily customize its design to meet the specifications of their research, and the chips can be fabricated quickly.

Related: See-through microchip organs help scientists test new drugs

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“This new programmable approach to building organs-on-chips not only allows us to easily change and customize the design of the system by integrating sensing but also drastically simplifies data acquisition,” said Johan Ulrik Lind, lead author and postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS).

Other Harvard research teams have developed microphysiological systems that mimic the microarchitecture and functions of lungs, hearts, tongues, and intestines. These synthetic organs could replace animal testing with a customizable and completely humane alternative that may also lead to more accurate results. Unfortunately, the cost for fabricating these organs-on-a-chip is still quite high, and the process is also time-consuming. Researchers are continuously pushing forward to improve their methods, though, in the hopes of making this a viable and cost-effective alternative toward the cruel practice of animal testing.

The results of the team’s research were published this week in the journal Nature Materials.

Via Gizmodo

Images via Harvard University