Body On a Chip

How Ken-ichiro Kamei’s childhood love of Legos inspired his professional discoveries that could cure diseases.

“How do I make this useful for humanity?” This is the guiding question for Associate Professor Ken-ichiro Kamei, who has a joint appointment in Biology and Bioengineering. 

Kamei is working on a project that can change how life-saving drugs are discovered and tested and how diseases are treated in humans and animals. He clearly remembers the moment in 2012 when he had an epiphany to combine two research areas. 

“I was training in both chip research and stem cell research. I was always thinking about key applications. Then I saw the potential to combine them,” he said. 

Kamei invented “Body-on-a-Chip.” The invention is a chip the size of a name badge that can mimic organs and diseases of humans and animals.

In 2017, he published his first research on cancer, by putting liver cancer cells and heart cells into “Body-on-a-Chip” to see what side effects the anti-cancer drug was having on the heart. 

Kamei has been working on non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, or NAFLD. The disease is very complicated, so Kamei said he studied it before testing any drug and is working on replicating NAFLD in a chip for future drug discovery. 

“If the fatty liver disease gets to an advanced stage, it requires a liver transplant,”  Kamei said. “You have to find a suitable donor, which is difficult to match. If we can stop this disease at an early stage, we will not require a liver transplant.”  

 His work can create opportunities to study human diseases in a controlled setting that allows for observations to be studied. However, his invention extends to other reaches of biology that could help with conservation efforts. 

Kamei also has a particular interest in endangered animals. Kamei described being “quite lucky” to attend a conference where he met researchers working on endangered animals. He immediately saw an opportunity to collaborate and create something novel.

“A gorilla can easily have a heart attack; we don’t know why,” he said. “We need to have good treatment to save such endangered animals. 

In particular, obtaining stem cells from endangered animals can be very useful for species conservation. Therefore, I’m working on a “Stem-Cell-on-a-Chip” for endangered animals.”

Kamei’s unending curiosity and drive to create started as a young boy. He was one of those kids who liked to put Legos together without using instructions, always interested in making something new. 

He was inspired by Caltech Professor Richard P. Feynman, the 1965 Nobel Prize winner in Physics, who famously wrote the following on his blackboard.

“What I cannot create, I do not understand.”

Kamei is himself fairly new to NYUAD. He said his wife, Professor of Biology Dan Ohtan Wang, chose NYUAD for her teaching and research and assured him it was “the place to go.”

“She found this to be a really amazing place, and then we both agreed to come out here,” said  Kamei. “I also really like the international atmosphere here.”

Kamei believes the international atmosphere at NYUAD is stimulating and will help grow his research.