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Penn Engineering Team Showcases ‘Eye-on-a-Chip’ Technology

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A team of graduate students from the School of Engineering and Applied Science were among seven finalists at the Collegiate Inventors Competition earlier this week. Cassidy Blundell, Nicholas Perkons, and Jeongyun Seo presented their “eye-on-a-chip” to a team of experts from industry and academia, making the case that their device represents a more reliable, accurate, and ethical alternative to animal testing.

Founded in 1990, the Collegiate Inventors Competition attracts submissions from undergraduate and graduate students who have developed potentially commercializable products in the course of research. In partnership with the United States Patent and Trademark Office, the competition is designed to encourage innovation, entrepreneurship, and creativity with the lure of more than $100,000 in prizes.

“Our eye-on-a-chip addresses one of the most critical issues in health research: a lack of effective preclinical models for disease modeling,” says Seo. “Our device has applications in many industries, ranging from pharmaceutical development to consumer product toxicity screening.”   

The team works in the lab of Dan Huh, the Wilf Family Term Assistant Professor of Bioengineering. Huh’s research involves developing synthetic substitutes for biological systems, otherwise known as organ-on-a-chip devices.

These small plastic chips contain microfluidic channels, carefully designed so that human cells can grow in them in a way that simulates the three-dimensional environments they would normally inhabit in the body.

Huh, along with Donald Ingber of Harvard’s Wyss Institute, received the Design Museum of London’s 2015 Design of the Year award for their lung-, gut- and liver-on-a-chip devices, but the eye-on-a-chip takes their work a step further. In addition to the channels and membranes that allow corneal cells to grow, the team’s eye-on-a-chip features a 3-D-printed, motor-driven eyelid that simulates blinking.

This additional layer of verisimilitude will be critical for accurately modeling dry eye disease, the team’s next project.

"We were thrilled to represent Penn in the final round of this extremely prestigious competition,” Huh says. “It is rewarding to learn that innovation and paradigm-shifting potential of our organ-on-a-chip technology have been recognized by world-renowned inventors and scientists.”