The design world’s eyes are on organs-on-chips

Organs-on-chips Museum of Modern Art MoMA London Design Museum exhibit Wyss Institute Vascular Biology
Organs-on-chips on display in New York City’s Museum of Modern Art. (Photo: Wyss Institute at Harvard University)

[Update 5/18/15: According to a Wyss Institute press release, the Design Museum in London has selected the organs-on-chips as the winner of their 2015 Designs of the Year exhibition’s Product category.]

If you’re in New York City in the next few months, pop into the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and stop by the “This Is For Everyone: Design For The Common Good” exhibit. There—alongside displays dedicated to the “@” symbol, the pin icon from Google Maps and bricks made from living mushroom roots—you’ll find three small silicone blocks mounted on a wall panel.

Those blocks are actually three of the organs-on-chips developed in the lab of Donald Ingber, MD, PhD, founding director of the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering and a scientist in Boston Children’s Hospital’s Vascular Biology Program.

Earlier this month, MoMA announced its plans to include the chips as part of their exploration of contemporary design in the digital age. In the museum’s eyes, organs-on-chips are more than a way to model disease in a complex, living system—they’re also art.

Organs-on-chips Museum of Modern Art MoMA London Design Museum exhibit Wyss Institute Vascular Biology
(Photo: Wyss Institute at Harvard University)

“Even when they are conceptual, speculative and not immediately viable, most design experiments are created to prompt dialogue and to anticipate concrete needs, problems or conditions—in other words, to actively support a greater good to come,” Paola Antonelli and Michelle Millar Fischer, senior curator and curatorial assistant, respectively, of MoMA’s Department of Architecture and Design, wrote on the museum’s Inside/Out blog. “Esoteric or specialized, 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.”

MoMA isn’t the only design icon paying attention to the chips. London’s Design Museum last week opened its Designs of the Year 2015 exhibition, dedicated to celebrating “design that promotes or delivers change, enables access, extends design practice or captures the spirit of the year.” The chips feature prominently in the exhibit’s Products category and will compete for best design in this category; the museum plans to announce the winners for each category in May, and the overall exhibition winner in June.

Ingber, trained both in medicine and engineering, has long incorporated principles from art and architecture in his biomedical research, ever since taking an art class as an undergraduate. His landmark work on mechanobiology—the concept that physical forces can impact how cells and other biological systems function—led to the realization that it would be necessary to turn to physical forces (like breathing motions or fluid flow) to mimic organs in chip form.

Organs-on-chips Museum of Modern Art MoMA London Design Museum exhibit Wyss Institute Vascular Biology
(Photo: Wyss Institute at Harvard University)

“As design is absolutely key to everything we do at the Wyss Institute, and it has been a guiding light for me personally from the start of my career, it’s a thrill and an honor to see the organs-on-chips technology find a home amongst MoMA’s collection of world–renowned designs,” he said in a statement about the MoMA acquisition.

“I have always felt that great scientists are closer to artists than another profession, and great advances come from crossing the boundary between these disciplines,” he added. “So it’s exciting to see MoMA’s curators embrace the subtlety and simplicity of our microscale design, and communicate the power of bridging the art–science interface to the public.”