Could lab-grown mini-brains replace animal testing?
If you keep even a casual eye on the world of medical research, then you'll known that animal testing is a ubiquitous part of the process. New drugs are routinely tried outon laboratory animals, usually rodents, before clinical trials areconsidered. Now, researchers at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School ofPublic Health have developed a possible alternative, creating"mini-brains" made up of a similar mix of cells and neurons foundin the human brain.
The use of laboratory animals isextremely widespread, but an astounding 95 percent of medicines that appear promising in rodent testing are found to be ineffective oncehuman trials are conducted. Developing an effective alternative tothe practice would represent a huge step forward in the drugdevelopment process, not to mention the ethical leap it wouldrepresent.
The most important fact to considerwhen looking at the Johns Hopkins team's possible alternative is thatthe mini-brains are derived from human cells, making it much morelikely that the observed results will more closely resemble whatcould be expected in full human trials.
From a physical point of view, the newapproach couldn't be much more different. Rather than using livingcreatures of a different species, the researchers turned to tinybundles of cells just 350 micrometers in diameter. Just visible tothe human eye, hundreds to thousands of identical mini-brains can beproduced in a single batch, and as many as 100 of them can resideand grow within a single petri dish.
The tiny, brain-like bundles of cellsare made up of adult skin cells that have been geneticallyreprogrammed to an embryonic stem cell-like state, and thenengineered to grow into brain cells. After two months of cultivation,the mini-brains developed four types of neurons and two types ofsupport cells (oligodendrocytes and astrocytes).
Study lead Thomas Hartung is in theprocess of building a company called Organome to produce themini-brains on a larger scale. He hopes that production will beginlater this year, and that as many institutions as possible get onboard to test out the new method. In the long run, it could be thestart of a big change in the drug development world.
"While rodent models have beenuseful, we are not 150-pound rats," said study lead Thomas Hartung."And even though we are not balls of cells either, you can oftenget much better information from these balls of cells than fromrodents."
Source: Johns Hopkins