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collagen from a healthy engineered lung tissue. (Credit: Ruogang Zhao/University of Buffalo)

A new device could streamline the drug-testing process to speed the development of new medicines to treat pulmonary fibrosis. The technology mimics the damaging effects of lung fibrosis.

The innovation relies on the same technology used to print electronic chips, photolithography. Only instead of semiconducting materials, researchers placed upon the chip arrays of thin, pliable lab-grown lung tissues — in other words, its lung-on-a-chip technology.

With limited tools for fibrosis study, scientists have struggled to develop medicine to treat the disease. To date, there are only two drugs — pirfenidone and nintedanib — approved by the FDA that help slow its progress.

Using microlithography, the researchers printed tiny, flexible pillars made of a silicon-based organic polymer. They then placed the tissue, which acts like alveoli (the tiny air sacs in the lungs that allow us to consume oxygen), on top of the pillars.

Researchers induced fibrosis by introducing a protein that causes healthy lung cells to become diseased, leading to the contraction and stiffening of the engineered lung tissue. This mimics the scarring of the lung alveolar tissue in people who suffer from the disease.

The tissue contraction causes the flexible pillars to bend, allowing researchers to calculate the tissue contraction force based on simple mechanical principles.

Researchers tested the system’s effectiveness with pirfenidone and nintedanib. While each drug works differently, the system showed the positive results for both, suggesting the lung-on-a-chip technology could be used to test a variety of potential treatments for lung fibrosis.

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