'Mini Brains' From Human Stem Cells May Replace Lab Animals, Boost Development Of Drugs For Neurological Diseases


Experimenting drugs and medical procedures for safety and effectivity has long involved test animals. While it has helped developed valuable medicines, not all are in favor of such practice.

Now, researchers from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health have developed what they call "mini brains," which contain human neurons and cells that simulate the structure and function of actual human brains.

The discovery may help pave the way for animal-free scientific experiments thus, changing the way brain research and drug development works.

"This is in the best interest of patients and for saving animals," says the research team.

Putting An End To Animal Testing

The mini brains are far more efficient than testing mice and rodents simply because the balls of neurons are actually derived from humans - the main beneficiaries of scientific experiments.

"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," says lead author Thomas Hartung.

Hartung acknowledges the usefulness of test rodent models, but he emphasizes that humans are not rodents. Although humans are not balls of cells either, he believes the mini balls can provide better data than the animal models.

How Mini Brains Were Made

The research team created the mini balls from stem cells, which were reprogrammed to return back to their embryonic state and later developed to grow into brain cells.

The mini brains are so tiny, their diameter measure about 350 micrometers only. Such number is comparable to the size of a housefly's eye.

Personalized And Easy To Make

The mini brains were derived from healthy adults, but Hartung says the team can also develop mini brains from cells of people with different neurological diseases such as Alzheimer's disease, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's diseases and autism.

Such feature opens up the possibility for personalized medicine by getting skin cells from a person with a genetic background of a certain disease. With this, mini brains may help expose what really causes some diseases.

Mini brains can also exhibit spontaneous electrophysiological activity, which may be documented via electrodes, just like in electroencephalogram or EEG. The researchers were able to test this by putting the mini brains on electrodes, while test drugs were added. The researchers were able to listen to spontaneous communication between neurons during the testing process.

Mini brains may be produced in batches of hundreds to thousands of exact copies. In two months' time, mini brains may develop four kinds of neurons and two kinds of support cells.

The team worked on the mini brains for three years. Now, they want to step it up by applying for a patent and creating a commercial firm called ORGANOME to produce mini brains. Hartung says the mini brains are easy to produce and thus he expects to see more laboratories using their discovery.

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