Endangered animals on a Chip

The Giant Panda, the Blue Whale, the Sumatran Tiger, the Snow Leopard. Some of the most beautiful creatures on our planet are in danger of extinction, and if they disappear, they will be gone forever. These and 3000 more animals are on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)’s “Red List” of critically endangered species. Here at iCeMS we are using super biomaterials to create revolutionary experimental systems that will ultimately make these wonderful creatures safe. For ever.

One key problem facing conservationists worldwide is that, by definition, endangered species are exceptionally rare, and thus it is almost impossible to develop treatments for sick and injured animals as there are not enough experimental models which would allow scientists to develop tailor-made therapeutic and life-saving drugs. It is a deadly and vicious cycle. A scarcity of animals means less medicines; less medicines mean the animals get even scarcer still.

We believe there is a solution. Here in our lab at iCeMS, we are developing revolutionary tools to test new drugs or treatments that will safely treat and heal even the most sensitive and rarest of creatures. Our key weapons in the fight to stave off extinction are ‘iPS Cells’ and the cutting-edge technology of ‘Microengineering’.

The revolutionary iPS cell technology was originally discovered by Nobel-Prize laureate Prof. Shinya Yamanaka, one of iCeMS Principle Investigators, and now Director of the Center for iPS Cell Research here at Kyoto University. In a nutshell, iPS cells can be any kinds of cells in a body, enabling us to prepare whatever tissues or organs we need. Thus, if we can obtain just the smallest hairs or tiniest drops of blood from the high-risk animals, we can isolate their iPS cells and use these to develop unique, reliable, inexpensive and highly effective experimental models to develop life-saving drugs. It is a research area that will potentially revolutionize animal conservation and here at iCeMS we are at the forefront of that research.

We are biologists, but we are also engineers, and very much in a 21st century sense having swapped overalls and wrenches for lab coats and microscopes. With micro-engineering, we can create sophisticated devices the size of a grain of pollen. Thus we create miniature where cells can thrive in an environment that replicates an actual animal or human body. This device we have dubbed “Body on a Chip”. (BoC).

In combination with our iPS cell technology, we will be able to develop many versions of “The Body on a Chip” with many kinds of tissue cells obtained from animal-specific iPS cells as well as from the blood circulatory.

These models allow us to create new drugs and treatments, not only for animals of course but also for humans. Furthermore, to facilitate progress in developing the BoC, we propose an interdisciplinary approach that integrates stem cell research, micro/nanotechnology, and materials science, and this is exactly what iCeMS can greatly contribute.


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