Mini synthetic organism: When the heart beats on a chip

Interview with Florian Schmieder and Udo Klotzbach, Fraunhofer Institute for Material and Beam Technology IWS

Replicating the human organism in a mini format – researchers at the Fraunhofer IWS braved this challenge. They developed a compact system where different physical processes can be imitated on a chip. It is also possible to copy cardiac and pulmonary functions.


Photo: Florian Schmieder

Florian Schmieder; © private

At, Florian Schmieder and Udo Klotzbach explain how this mini synthetic organism can be applied and what potential it still offers.

What is the mini synthetic organism your team developed made of?

Florian Schmieder
: Our artificial mini-organism is a cell cultivation system that consists of several components. They are composed of polymers and silicone. Active elements can be integrated into a lab-on-a-chip system such as a micropump for example that – like the heart in the human body – is needed for medium circulation. Channel structures or cell culture chambers in which the culture cells are being placed are also a part of this.
Photo: Udo Klotzbach

Udo Klotzbach; © private

Udo Klotzbach: We at the Fraunhofer IWS developed the functional sheath for the mini synthetic organism, that being the hardware and software. The inner life – I call it the bioware – comes from our partners in the biology and medical field. They reenact different physical processes in the lab-on-the-chip system with a few cells and culture media and we adapt the chip to the specific requirements of the user if needed.

What processes of the human body can be reproduced with this model?

: The cells are added into the chambers of the microfluidic systems and perfused via the externally controlled internal micropump. In doing so, various circuits such as the blood circulation or urinary system can be imitated in a mini format. The heart function can also be replicated. The micropump can vary the frequency and the pressure and thus simulate different heart rhythms. In addition, you can also reenact effects such as cardiac valve insufficiency or ventricular fibrillation by actuating the micropump accordingly.

What’s more, we are able to imitate the function of the lung with the chip. Active gassing of the medium is possible via the integrated membrane in the micropump. An oxygen-saturated medium ensures that the cells remain in a physiological condition. You can also use the micropump for a hypoxia model by imitating an undersupply of oxygen.
Photo: Model of the mini organism

Researchers can imitate the heartbeat for example on the mini organ chip. Animal testing in the medical and pharmaceutical research could be reduced with the system; © Fraunhofer IWS

The system also provides big advantages for medical research. Where is the chip being used already and what other applications do you see?

: We are cooperating with the Technical University of Berlin, Germany. Researchers there already succeeded in cultivating up to four organs together on a chip and imitating parts of the human organism with it. We are also collaborating with the University Medical Center Dresden. In this case, the key aspect is examining renal diseases with a specific model of the kidney on the chip instead of with laboratory animals.

Klotzbach: Our system also offers huge potential for the cosmetics and pharmaceutical industries. Presently, pharmaceuticals and cosmetics are first tested on cells and then animals. However, the legislator, that being the EU, has issued a regulation stating animal experiments must no longer be perspectively performed for cosmetics and pharmaceutical research. The goal here is to get very close to animal experiments with the types of systems we develop to completely replace them in the future.
Foto: Michalina Chrzanowska; Copyright: B. Frommann

© B. Frommann

The interview was conducted by Michalina Chrzanowska and translated by Elena O'Meara.