What Scientists Are Learning From a Chain-Smoking Robot

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No, not that one.

Researchers obviously have an urgent interest in better understanding how cigarettes and e-cigs affect the human respiratory system, but they also lack easy ways to study the process of tobacco affecting the lungs as it happens. Enter a new piece of technology created by researchers at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, at Harvard University. As Hyacinth Empinado reported yesterday in Stat, the technology consists of a “rubber block full of lung cells … called a lung-airway-on-a-chip [that’s] connected to a respirator that mimics how humans smoke.”

Here’s video of the thing in action:

The team behind the device, led by Kambez Benam, conducted a study published yesterday in Cell Systems, which is summed up by Empinado as follows:

Benam targeted chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), the third-leading cause of death worldwide. Smoking is the main cause of COPD, and there is no cure.

Researchers lined the chips with cells derived from COPD patients as well as unaffected people and filled the chambers with cigarette smoke. When they compared gene expression from the two pools of cells, they found 147 genes that were expressed differently in the COPD samples, compared to healthy cells.

Empinado reports that according to one of the researchers behind the device, it “could replace costly and time-consuming animal studies … and be used to hunt for patient-specific drug targets for smoking-related diseases.” While this smoking robot doesn’t mimic the human respiratory system perfectly, it sounds like it has potential make smoking research a whole lot more efficient and humane.