Researchers Grow Miniature Human Brain in a Vat
Researchers at Ohio State University have grown a nearly complete human brain in a dish that equals the brain maturity of a 5-week-old fetus. The lab-grown brain, about the size of a pencil eraser, has an identifiable structure and contains 99 percent of the genes present in the human fetal brain.
The research was presented at the 2015 Military Health System Research Symposium in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. According to the researchers, the miniature brain “organoid” is the most complete human brain model yet developed.
The Most Exciting Thing to Happen in Neurology to Date
“It not only looks like the developing brain, its diverse cell types express nearly all genes like a brain,” said Ohio State University professor Rene Anand. “We’ve struggled for a long time trying to solve complex brain disease problems that cause tremendous pain and suffering. The power of this brain model bodes very well for human health because it gives us better and more relevant options to test and develop therapeutics other than rodents.”
Though the model brain doesn’t have a vascular system, it has a spinal cord, all major regions of the brain, multiple cell types, signaling circuitry and even a retina. According to Anand, this development has the potential to dramatically accelerate the pace of neuroscience research.
The miniature vat-grown brain, engineered from adult human skin cells converted into pluripotent cells, is intended for clinical and research applications. In fact, the brain organoid could permit rapid and accurate testing of experimental drugs for brain conditions before the clinical trial stage, as well as studies of genetic and environmental causes of neural disorders.
Anand used proprietary techniques to convert pluripotent cells into neural cells. “Once a cell is in that pluripotent state, it can become any organ – if you know what to do to support it to become that organ,” said Anand. “The brain has been the holy grail because of its enormous complexity compared to any other organ.”
Anand and collaborator Susan McKay, a research associate in biological chemistry and pharmacology, co-founded a Columbus-based start-up company, NeurXstem, to commercialize their technology platform, and hope to be participate in DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) projects.
The Guardian notes that other researchers criticize Anand and McKay for not releasing their proprietary research specifications and data. “When someone makes such an extraordinary claim as this, you have to be cautious until they are willing to reveal their data,” said a neuroscientist.
“The creation of the in vitro brain (IVB) is perhaps the most exciting thing to happen in neurology to date,” notes the Practical Ethics blog of Oxford University.
There is enormous therapeutic potential in this new technology.
Anand emphasized that the organoid is not a functioning brain, and it should not be thought of as a thinking and feeling brain in a vat. “We don’t have any sensory stimuli entering the brain,” said Anand to The Guardian. “This brain is not thinking in any way.”
The Practical Ethics blog confirms that the miniature brain can’t be conscious, but notes that future developments could produce a thinking and feeling brain in a vat, which would raise ethical concerns.
Images from Ohio State University and Shutterstock.