Brain-in-a-dish: researchers create “the most complete model of a human brain ever grown in a lab”

Photo courtesy of Ohio State University

Photo courtesy of Ohio State University

Ohio State University researchers Rene Anand and Susan McKay say they have grown a miniaturized human brain from re-programmed adult skin cells. The structure is described in this Washington Post story as “no bigger than a pencil eraser” and is said to contain “all the major structures and 99 percent of the genes present in the brain of a five-week-old fetus.”

“It’s a scalable model that can be engineered to carry the genetic variants that give rise to all these diseases … and it gives us incredible access to things we never have done before,” lead researcher Anand told The Washington Post. “We can screen drugs, we can ask questions, we can follow the development at every stage.”

Because the researchers are patenting their process, they have not released data describing their methods. (They have also formed a commercial startup.) But according to an OSU press release, the team has already used the technique to model autism, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s disease “in-a-dish,” and hopes to receive funding from the Small Business Technology Transfer program to use the model in drug development.

The announcement comes on the heels of another advance in organotypic brain modeling – a 3D bioprinted structure developed by Rodrigo Lozano and colleagues at the University of Wollongong in Australia. A functional brain “organoid” that can be subjected to environmental manipulations, or genetically engineered to reproduce inherited conditions, holds great promise for human-relevant toxicity testing, more efficient drug-candidate screening, and the study of neurodevelopmental and neurodegenerative diseases.

3D bioprinting 3D cell & tissue culture disease-in-a-dish drug discovery stem cells
Rod photoreceptors (in green) within a "mini retina" derived from human iPS cells in the lab.

3D “mini retina” from stem cells

Scientists at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine have cultivated functional 3-dimensional human retinal tissue in vitro from induced human pluripotent stem cells.  And in a significant technical advance over previous cultured retina studies, the resulting tissue exhibits mature cell differentiation and organization, and is able to detect light.

From the JHU press release:

(Lead investigator M. Valeria Canto-Soler) says that the newly developed system gives them the ability to generate hundreds of mini-retinas at a time directly from a person affected by a particular retinal disease such as retinitis pigmentosa. This provides a unique biological system to study the cause of retinal diseases directly in human tissue, instead of relying on animal models.

The system, she says, also opens an array of possibilities for personalized medicine such as testing drugs to treat these diseases in a patient-specific way. In the long term, the potential is also there to replace diseased or dead retinal tissue with lab-grown material to restore vision.

The study appears in last week’s issue of Nature Communications.

(To learn more about stem cells – especially about their potential in toxicity testing – see this stem cell “primer” on

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