Every year, the Design Museum in London picks a single object and names it the best design of the year. It's pretty bad sometimes! But this year the museum picked a winner: A chip that replaces animal test subjects with a complex package of human cells.
It's called a lung-on-a-chip--a name that is very literally true, lest you think this is simply a computer chip programmed to mimic a lung. It comes from Harvard's Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, which explains in a great video how it works.
This clear, simple-looking brick of plastic actually contains complex human cells, arranged in a simplified version of the way a lung works: Along the central channels, there's a lining of human lung cells separated from a lining of capillary blood cells by a porous membrane, just like the air sacs in your lung:
On each side, channels create the flexing movement that an air sac does while you breathe.
In other words, it's all of the biological complexity of your lungs distilled onto a computer chip.
As they explain, Wyss's scientists can introduce bacteria to the channels to mimic an infection — and white blood cells in the capillary channel will attack. Or, they can introduce the chemicals you breathe in regularly to mimic air pollution and its affect on your lungs. Or test new medications.
"Bio-inspired micro-devices that mimic whole human organs, such as the lung on a chip, could potentially replace animal testing and bring new therapies to patients faster and at lower cost in the future," the design team explains in their video. Other labs are working on organs like the heart and even spleen, and Wyss' ultimate goal is to build ten different organs and link them to create a whole body.
Who do we have to thank for bringing news of the chip to the design world? That would be Paola Antonelli, MoMA's Senior Curator of Architecture & Design, as Dezeen points out today in its announcement as the award's media partner. Antonelli not only nominated the chip, she already added it to MoMA's permanent collection in March, writing on MoMA's blog:
Esoteric or specialised, perhaps, but universally remarkable in their balance of form, function, and vision, investigations like the Wyss Institute's Human Organs-on-Chips demonstrate new, radical intersections of synthetic biology and design.
In the past, the Design Museum's pick have ranged from anodyne at best — a lightbulb, in 2011 — to downright tone-deaf, like the jury's choice of a Zaha Hadid building in Azerbaijan built by a dictatorial regime and named for a president known for his human rights abuses. This year, the jury really turned it around, selecting an object that is not only a brilliant piece of design, but also has the power to end the barbaric practice of animal testing while helping human patients.
Antonelli deserves a lot of credit for caring what's happening in science, medicine and technology, and forcing the rest of the design world to broaden insular, myopic field of view to include objects that aren't just lightbulbs and billion-dollar museums, great though they are. Design — while it won't save the world — can certainly change it for good.