Page URL:

Mini brains 'could transform drug testing'

22 February 2016
Appeared in BioNews 840

Miniature brains made out of clusters of human cells could revolutionise high-throughput drug screening, said scientists at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in Washington, DC, earlier this month. 

'Ninety-five percent of drugs that look promising when tested in animal models fail once they are tested in humans, at great expense of time and money,' said study leader Dr Thomas Hartung from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health at a press conference.

Dr Hartung and colleagues created the mini-brains using skin cells from adult volunteers. These cells are reprogrammed back into stem cells, which are then induced to grow into brain cells. Within two months they grew into three-dimensional clusters approximately the size of a housefly's eye.

Despite their tiny size, these mini-brains are surprisingly complex and are able to replicate some primitive brain functions. They include four distinct types of neurons as well as two different supporting cells – including oligodendrocytes, which create the protective myelin sheath surrounding neurons. The mini-brains even show spontaneous electrophysiological activity in response to various drugs similar to what might be seen on an electroencephalogram (EEG). 

Researchers think that mini-organs may better represent how normal human brains react to specific drugs and could therefore provide a viable alternative to animal models.

'While rodent models have been useful, we are not 150-pound rats. And even though we are not balls of cells either, you can often get much better information from these balls of cells than from rodents,' Dr Hartung told Motherboard.

Experiments using mini-brains could also be used for basic research, providing insight into neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease, stroke and trauma.

'We don't have the first brain model, nor are we claiming to have the best one. But this is the most standardised one. And when testing drugs it is imperative that the cells being studied are as similar as possible to ensure the most comparable and accurate results,' said Dr Hartung.

The method is also scalable, with the possibility of generating hundreds of mini-brains from the same batch of cells.

'Nobody should have an excuse to still use the old animal models,' said Dr Hartung.

Dr Hartung's team is currently creating a spin-off company called Organome, which aims to make mini-brains available for pharmaceutical testing within the next year.

Human mini-brains set to transform drug testing
Financial Times |  12 February 2016
Human mini-brains to speed up Alzheimer's and Parkinson's research
The Telegraph |  12 February 2016
Lab Grown Mini-Brains Could End Animal Testing (on Brains)
Motherboard |  14 February 2016
Researchers create 'mini-brains' in lab to study neurological diseases
Eurekalert (press release) |  12 February 2016
Understanding Neurotoxicity: Building Human Mini-Brains From Patients' Stem Cells
AAAS Annual Meeting 2016 (conference paper) |  13 February 2016
21 October 2019 - by Dr Yvonne Collins 
Human brain development occurs as a slower pace compared to other primates, according to a new study using 'mini brains' from stem cells...
11 July 2016 - by Sarah Gregory 
Researchers looking at multiple genes have developed risk scores that could identify those most likely to develop Alzheimer's disease in later life...
12 October 2015 - by Rhys Baker 
Australian scientists have successfully grown 'mini kidneys' from stem cells derived from skin tissue...
24 August 2015 - by Dr Julia Hill 
For the first time, an almost fully formed human brain has been grown in the lab, according to scientists from Ohio State University...
20 July 2015 - by Ayala Ochert 
Scientists have grown miniature brains out of stem cells from people with autism, and have found that they over-produce one type of neuron...
3 November 2014 - by Antony Starza-Allen 
Scientists in the USA have for the first time created three-dimensional stomach tissue from human pluripotent stem cells...
2 September 2013 - by Dr Sophie Pryor 
Human stem cells have been used to grow miniature brains, 'organoids' that are just millimetres across and at an equivalent developmental stage as in a nine-week-old fetus...
to add a Comment.

By posting a comment you agree to abide by the BioNews terms and conditions

Syndicate this story - click here to enquire about using this story.