London: A team of researchers have developed a three-dimensional (3D) "organ on a chip" which enables real-time continuous monitoring of cells and could be used to develop new treatments for disease while reducing the number of animals used in research.

The device, which incorporates cells inside a 3D transistor made from a soft sponge-like material inspired by native tissue structure, gives scientists the ability to study cells and tissues in new ways.

By enabling cells to grow in three dimensions, the device more accurately mimics the way that cells grow in the body.

"With this system, we can monitor the growth of the tissue, and its health in response to external drugs or toxins," said Charalampos Pitsalidis, a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Cambridge.

"Apart from toxicology testing, we can also induce a particular disease in the tissue, and study the key mechanisms involved in that disease or discover the right treatments," Pitsalidis added.

The researchers, in the study reported in the journal Science Advances, explained that their device could be modified to generate multiple types of organs -- a liver on a chip or a heart on a chip, for example -- ultimately leading to a body on a chip which would simulate how various treatments affect the body as whole.

The new device is based on a "scaffold" of a conducting polymer sponge, configured into an electrochemical transistor. The cells are grown within the scaffold and the entire device is then placed inside a plastic tube through which the necessary nutrients for the cells can flow.

The use of the soft, sponge electrode instead of a traditional rigid metal electrode provides a more natural environment for cells, and is key to the success of organ on chip technology in predicting the response of an organ to different stimuli.

The researchers plan to use their device to develop a 'gut on a chip' and attach it to a 'brain on a chip' in order to study the relationship between the gut microbiome and brain function.