pioneers of organ-on-a-chip
In the early 1990s, our CEO Michel Shuler had an observation which would lead to a revolutionary idea, sparking decades of research. Animal models were poor predictors for therapeutics in humans. He envisioned a more predictive model, thinking that recent advances in engineering multi-cellular culture systems could be the key to designing it utilizing PBPK modeling tools. He coined these models "animal-on-a-chip"- a term that would later become organ-on-a-chip (OOC) and now human-on-a-chip.
In parallel, Hesperos’ Chief Scientist, James J Hickman, was developing engineered cell culture systems utilizing serum-free medium and defined surface compositions as well as functional readouts that mimic physiological, mechanical and electrical functions such as cardiac and skeletal muscle contractions and neuronal and cardiac electrical properties. These systems are capable not only of acute measurements but long-term chronic evaluation. Hickman has also utilized stem cells to derive most neuronal cells as well as muscle and cardiomyocytes and worked these systems into multi-organ constructs. He had also developed modeling and simulation tools to predict and understand function in these systems.
About 10 years ago, Shuler and Hickman attended talks by each other and decided a collaboration to combine the unique attributes of their systems to develop multi-organ systems with functional readouts for acute and chronic applications would be revolutionary for the field. They also adapted their respectful modeling capabilities to enable PBPK modeling of this unique in vitro platform to enable the models to predict in vivo behavior.
Fast forward a decade and the promise of their human-on-a-chip technologies has become a reality. While these technologies are still young, they have already shown effective at predicting the effects of many therapeutics. As they gain wider acceptance in research, they are becoming more refined and the data they are generating are allowing researchers to make more informed decisions.
In 2011 The NIH established NCATS to address the long timelines, steep costs and high failure rates associated with the drug development process. To further support this initiative, in 2012 the NIH and FDA partnered to form a collaboration with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) focused on advancing development of organ-on-a-chip technology and created the Tissue Chip Program. Shuler and Hickman were funded in the initial grant period of the Initiative by NIH.
Hesperos became the first spin-off company from the NIH/DARPA program and in 2018 the company’s technology was the first to reach the Phase IIb of funding, which is awarded to proven technologies that require additional effort to enable regulatory acceptance.
Hesperos, Inc. continues to expand the limits of this technology by allowing drug and cosmetic researchers to observe the effects of their compounds on multiple organs within a system for both parent compounds and their metabolites. This patented system allows for a series of organs to interact with each other in a pumpless, serum-free platform, more closely reproducing effects seen in the human body. Hesperos has coined this next step of this field as human-on-a-chip.
The future is bright for Hesperos and other OOC researchers. The applications of this technology are expanding past developing therapeutics and into the realm of personalized medicine. We are actively working to the day when this technology can be used to predict an individual’s reactions to therapeutics. Until that day, we are proud to continue to be one of the leaders for advancement of this field.