For hundreds of years, scientists have been using lab mice or rodents to carry out drug and scientific tests that will ultimately be applied to human conditions, but researchers from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health are set to change all that – and they will be using a ball of human cells for lab tests rather than mice or rodents.
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The ball of human cells are considered “mini-brains” because they are composed of healthy brain cells from humans and neurons, making it possible for the mini-brains to exercise certain functionalities of real human brains, while making large-scale production possible.
The researchers presented their findings on this mini-brain at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington on February 12 with a follow-up news conference on February 13, demonstrating that the new ball of brain cells could now be used to test the efficacy of new drugs instead of these being carried out on lab rodents.
“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 Thomas Hartung, the Doerenkamp-Zbinden Professor and Chair for Evidence-based Toxicology at the Bloomberg School. “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.”
Hartung added that since the mini-brain structure is derived from real human cells and able to be grown within 8 weeks, it will come to replace the use of lab mice for lab drug tests – making it possible for scientists to use human cell models instead of relying on lab rats.
The researchers were able to create the mini-brains by using induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) – adult cells genetically programmed into an embryonic stem cell-like structure that are then stimulated to develop into brain cells.
Cells were harvested from healthy human adults to create the mini-brains, but pharmaceutical companies can request for the cells of people with certain medical conditions so that the mini-brains for these class of people could be created to facilitate lab drug tests targeted at the patients.
The size of the mini-brains are just 350 micrometers in diameter or nearly the size of a housefly’s eye, and scientists are able to produce hundreds of thousands of these ball of cells within each batch of production within a few weeks.
“Only when we can have brain models like this in any lab at any time will we be able to replace animal testing on a large scale,” Hartung said, adding that his team is already working to patent the creation via a firm to be called Organome, with large-scale production starting before the end of 2016.
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This project was supported by the National Institutes of Health’s National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences, the Alternatives Research & Development Foundation, and the Bart McLean Fund for Neuroimmunology Research/Project Restore.