Organ-on-a-chip models

Drug development is an extremely expensive and time-intensive process. The major reason for the inefficiency of this process is the preclinical drug development requiring large animals or cell lines.

Animal models and cell lines do not only play a key role in pharmaceutical research. They are also used in the cosmetics and chemical industries, as well as in academic basic research. However, even highly developed animal models are not able to replicate the complex human body, particularly human disease. Moreover, they are ethically questionable.

Immortalized cell lines are often of non-human or cancerous tissue origin and are typically cultured in two-dimensional monocultures. The physiological relevance of these cultures compared to human tissue is thereby very limited. Therefore, in many cases, the results obtained from experiments with cell lines or animal experiments do not correctly predict a drug’s effect in humans.

Human in vitro models instead of animal experiments and cell lines

The discovery of human induced-pluripotent stem cells (hiPS cells) has given scientists the opportunity to overcome many limitations of classical animal models, which is leading to a paradigm shift in the development of personalized and disease-specific model systems. Specifically, the principle of organ-on-a-chip systems has evolved over the past few years from a conceptual idea to a possible alternative for animal models. Science, industry and public authorities now universally recognize the potential of these systems.

Organ-on-a-chip systems combine the unique features of classical cell assays (human genetic background) and animal models (3D tissue and blood circulation). They make it possible to reduce the need for animal experiments according to the 3R principle (Replace, Reduce, Refine). Furthermore, they improve the translatability of preclinical results to clinical phases and thus make the entire development process more cost-effective, safer and faster.


Basic building blocks of an organ-on-a-chip

In the Attract Group "Organ-on-a-chip", different microphysiological organ-on-a-chip systems, also known as microphysiological systems (MPS), are being developed that replicate the in vivo structure and functionality of the respective organs.

Microphysiological environment
The primary component of these systems is the microphysiological environment. For this purpose, technologies from the fields of microfabrication, materials science and microfluidics are used to create structures that physiologically mimic in vivo conditions. The use of microfluidics enables the work with physiologically relevant small quantities of liquids and allows for the transfer and removal of soluble factors such as nutrients, drugs or metabolites.

Human tissue
The second important component is the integration of human tissue, which is done by the use of hiPS cells instead of cell lines. By targeted differentiation of hiPS cells, it is possible to obtain cell types and tissues that have been difficult or impossible to isolate from primary biopsies. hiPS cells can be cryopreserved and expanded, making them far better suited for industrial applications that require reproducible and standardized models. In contrast to embryonic stem cells, the use of hiPS cells is not ethically problematic.


Applications of organs-on-chips

Organ-on-a-chip systems are envisioned to be primarily used for efficacy and toxicity testing during the preclinical screening of drugs.

Additional applications exist in almost every area where animal experiments are in use, such as biomedical basic research and the cosmetic industry, where there is a great demand for alternative methods because the EU will ban the import of all cosmetics tested on animals.

Another promising field of application is personalized medicine. This area is still immature, but it has great long-term potential.

Research topics



For the first time ever, the retina-on-a-chip system developed in this project enables the recapitulation of the physiological interaction of retinal photoreceptors with the surrounding retinal pigment epithelium in vitro. The chip is therefore suitable as a model system for the testing of new pharmaceutical active ingredients. It can also be used to study the mechanisms of retinal diseases such as macular degeneration.



With the WAT-on-a-chip we succeeded in recapitulation of human white adipose tissue in a 3D perfused environment. The chip is of importance for research on PK/PD, ADMET as well as metabolic diseases.



The activation of brown and beige adipose tissue (BAT) enables new therapeutic approaches for diabetes and obesity. Fraunhofer IGB is developing an innovative microfluidic system for the integration of (beige) adipose tissue. This enables a large number of different examinations.



In this project, we could recapitulate human myocardial tissue in a strongly anisotropic 3D structure featuring physiological beating. The heart-on-a-chip is suitable for e.g. cardiotoxicity evaluations.

Reference projects


Immune Safety Avatar: Nonclinical mimicking of the immune system effects of immunomodulatory therapies


In the imSAVAR project, an interdisciplinary EU consortium is developing innovative model systems to identify side effects of immunomodulating therapeutics on the immune system and to develop new biomarkers for diagnosis and prognosis. Fraunhofer IGB is involved in the development of novel immunocompetent in vitro models based on organ‑on‑chip systems as well as of cell‑based reporter gene assays using receptors of the immune system. Furthermore, they are part of the project management team.

Duration: December 2019  – November 2025

Biohybrid olfactory and taste sensory systems

For the economic use of biological odour sensors, a new platform technology is being developed in the project "Biohybrid olfactory and taste sensory systems" that automatically produces cell-based biosensors. The biosensors could give machines a sense of smell and be further developed for various applications, such as the detection of explosives, the detection of gas leaks or the diagnosis of diseases based on the breath of patients. The project represents a prototypical use case for the Fraunhofer strategic initiative "Biological Transformation", in which the institutes IGB and IPA are increasingly focusing on the combination of biological and technical systems.

Duration: June 2019 – December 2021

EUROoC – Interdisciplinary training network for advancing Organ-on-a-chip technology in Europe

The Marie Skłodowska-Curie Innovative Training Network EUROoC will create a trans-European network of industrially oriented specialists fully trained in development and application of the emerging Organ-on-a-chip (OoC) technology. OoC technology is advancing at breath taking pace due to its potential impact in drug development and personalised treatments of disease.

Duration: December 2018 – November 2022


Organ-on-Chip Development


The organ‑on‑chip technology will revolutionize the healthcare domain by offering new and ground breaking solutions to different industries and especially for regenerative medicine and medication. The main goal of ORCHID is to create a roadmap for organ‑on‑chip technology and to build a network of academia, research institutes, industry, and regulatory bodies to move this future emerging technology from promise in the laboratory into reality.


Duration: October 2017 – September 2019