Can Mini-Brains Revolutionize Research?

Diseases affecting the brain are often pose numerous difficulties in research. One such challenge is that animal models of the diseases never quite replicate the human reality. In mice, for example, there are often similar abnormalities, but the full condition is not reproducible. Treatments successful in mice often do not hold up to the real obstacles of human disease. Lab grown miniature brains may be a way to overcome these difficulties. Research is already being done involving these mini-brains and conditions such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and microcephaly. Keep reading to learn more, or follow the original story here for more information.

Organoids: Small But Mighty

Professor Jurgen Knoblich is a molecular biologist with a special interest in organoids (the formal term for mini-brains). The professor has gotten into the habit of growing them. To accomplish this, Professor Knoblich takes a skin cell sample from a patient with the condition he wishes to study. The skin cells can then be manipulated in the lab, reverting to a phase of development similar to the embryonic stage. From there, Professor Knoblich places the cells into dishes and stimuli are applied which develop them into organoids.

The most impressive thing about the mini-brains is that they are identical matches for the patient’s DNA and whatever mutation causes the patient’s condition. In the case of microcephaly, for example, the amount of brain tissue is less than the normal rate of growth predicts. Dozens of organoids can be grown in a single dish.

Organoids then represent a much closer human analog than any other test platform. The tissues are described as being similar to the brain of an embryo. Pharmaceutical companies would even be able to grow thousands of them to better test treatments.

Not Without Problems

One thing mini-brains are not, cautions Professor Knoblich, are exact replicas of human brains. They’re close, but distinguishable form the adult brain. Organoids can best be described as replicas of brain tissue than complete brains.

Another questions behind organoid research is how to procure tissue samples. One method being used by researchers studying Alzheimer’s is to procure skin cells from patients currently living with Alzheimer’s. In these cases, the created brain tissue already presents with the disease.

Another approach being used is to request skin cell samples from anonymous individuals without existing conditions. After the tissue samples are developed the specific mutations and conditions being studied can be added in. This method avoids some ethical concerns involving patient privacy and data protection.

Working Together

Mini-brains have already begun being used in some tests. A variety of drugs have been tested on a variety of organoid platforms. Researchers expect to make presentations of these results during the course of the current year.

Another benefit of organoids, Professor Knoblich says, is that it should reduce the cost associated with drug development. He is hopeful that as the technology becomes more available it will usher in not only lower costs but heightened cooperation between disciplines. “I’m convinced,” Knoblich says, “we are going to see a complete revolution that might actually end in a situation where biology and medicine are no longer separate disciplines.” “There is hope,” he continues, “for new drugs and for new treatments.”

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