Could ‘mini-brains’ replace animals in drug testing?

15 Feb 2016

US researchers have claimed to have developed tiny ‘mini-brains’ from human cells that could, one day, presumably, be used instead on animals in lab testing.

The mini-brains were apparently developed in the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, with researchers there saying they can produce thousands in one go, with some brain functionality even working in the tiny, barely visible creations.

Using what’s called induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), Thomas Hartung and his colleagues took skin cells from adults and reprogrammed them into an “embryonic stem cell-like state” according to the university. They were then stimulated to grow into brain cells.

The size of the eye of a housefly – which means a speck of dust, barely visible – hundreds of thousands of copies can be created in one go.

After two months cultivating on a petri dish (where up to 100 could fit), the brains developed four types of neurons and two types of support cells: astrocytes and oligodendrocytes, the latter of which go on to create myelin, which insulates the neuron’s axons and allows them to communicate faster.

Spontaneous electrophysiological activity

What’s particularly odd, though, is the myelin developed in front of the researchers’ eyes, with the brains even showing “spontaneous electrophysiological activity”.

Chair for evidence-based toxicology at the Bloomberg School, Hartung said this is not the first in its field, nor, perhaps, the creation of the best mini-brains, rather the most standardised ones – which is key for drug testing.

Hartung and his colleagues reckon the brains can be used to study Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis and even autism. Projects to study viral infections, trauma and stroke have even been started.

Taking cells from human sufferers of particular diseases could, essentially, act as a far better testing bed for drugs – and get rodents off the menu in the process.

“95pc 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 Hartung.

“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.

“We believe that the future of brain research will include less reliance on animals, more reliance on human, cell-based models.”

Last October, researchers in Brown University achieved something similar – however, that was done with rodent cells.

Brain image via Shutterstock

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic