A miniaturised model of human digestion to advance therapies and nutritional products

July 1, 2024

INL researchers have made a significant breakthrough in the development of reliable in-vitro digestion models. This ‘digestion-chip’ promises to revolutionise the way new oral formulations are tested, offering a more accurate, efficient, and cost-effective alternative to current models.

Traditional in-vitro digestion models often fail to replicate the complex dynamics of the human gastrointestinal tract. They either lack critical digestive processes or require large volumes of samples and reagents, which can be challenging when dealing with nanomaterials. The INL’s innovative ‘digestion-chip’ addresses these limitations with its miniaturised design and advanced features.

The coordinator of the study Catarina Gonçalves explains, “the Food Processing and Nutrition research group proposes a miniaturised digestion system based on incubation chambers integrated into a polymethylmethacrylate device. This solution incorporates key dynamic features of human digestion while maintaining low complexity and using small volumes of samples and reagents”.

The digestion-chip features gradual acidification (the stepwise addition of enzymes and simulated fluids during the gastric phase) and controlled gastric emptying. These capabilities are essential for replicating the intricate environment of the human stomach and intestines.

The research team’s experimental results indicate that “the ‘digestion-chip’ successfully replicates the established static digestion INFOGEST protocol”. Moreover, “the semi-dynamic digestion kinetics observed with the chip can be accurately modelled using a first-order kinetic approach. This validation underscores the reliability and robustness of the new system,” explains Catarina Gonçalves.

The digestion-chip’s design allows for easy adaptation to dynamic features in an automated, sensorized platform. It offers a low-cost and efficient method for assessing the bio-accessibility of new and expensive drugs, bioactive ingredients, or nanoengineered materials intended for oral consumption. Importantly, this solution could significantly reduce the reliance on animal testing in pharmaceutical and nutritional research.

The INL team believes that their ‘digestion-chip’ will be a game-changer for researchers working on oral formulations. By providing a more accurate and resource-efficient testing method, the ‘digestion-chip’ stands to accelerate the development of new therapies and nutritional products, ultimately benefiting both industry and consumers.

This research study was recently published in Scientific Reports. The work was funded by the SbDtoolBox (NORTE-01-0145-FEDER-000047) and GASTRIC (Marie Sklodowska-Curie Grant Agreement No. 101003440).

Text and Photography by Catarina Moura, Science Communication Officer