Bioethics Blogs

Creative Minds: Making a Miniature Colon in the Lab

Caption: Top down view of gut tissue monolayer grown on an engineered scaffold, which guides the cells into organized crypts structures similar to the conformation of crypts in the human colon. Areas between the circles represent the flat lumenal surface.
Credit: Nancy Allbritton, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

When Nancy Allbritton was a child in Marksville, LA, she designed and built her own rabbit hutches. She also once took apart an old TV set to investigate the cathode ray tube inside before turning the wooden frame that housed the TV into a bookcase, which, by the way, she still has. Allbritton’s natural curiosity for how things work later inspired her to earn advanced degrees in medicine, medical engineering, and medical physics, while also honing her skills in cell biology and analytical chemistry.

Now, Allbritton applies her wide-ranging research background to design cutting-edge technologies in her lab at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. In one of her boldest challenges yet, supported by a 2015 NIH Director’s Transformative Research Award, Allbritton and a multidisciplinary team of collaborators have set out to engineer a functional model of a large intestine, or colon, on a microfabricated chip about the size of a dime.

Nancy Allbritton

Nancy Allbritton

Her work is a part of NIH’s investment in developing tissue chips—miniature 3D organoids made with living cells, which the blog has highlighted several times for their great potential in basic research and drug screening. But Allbritton would like to go beyond creating an organoid that approximates certain key features of the colon.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.