Could News in “Minibrains” Mean a Breakthrough in MS?

We’re always hearing about exciting new developments in the lab that could provide hope for new solutions for multiple sclerosis. So why are we still waiting for one to appear in our medicine cabinet? Well, here’s the thing – so-called breakthroughs in the lab don’t always translate so well in the real world.

That’s because treatments that appear effective in a Petri dish in preclinical testing may have no impact on humans. The reverse could also be true – treatments with no effect in the lab could be a panacea for people with MS, and we’ll never know.

Thankfully, an interesting new development could transform research in diseases that affect the brain and central nervous system. Cunning scientists working with Professor Thomas Hartung from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, have managed to grow primitive human brains, (brain-like structures to be more precise), in a lab. These primitive brains could hold the key for testing new treatments.

If that all sounds a bit too Frankenstein-y for you, fear not. We’re not talking eerie jars full of human heads. The ”minibrains” are actually tiny clusters (smaller than the head of a pin) of neurons and other brain cells that, though simple, react and behave much in the same way as they do in the full-size equivalent.

So how on earth did they do it? The answer is stem cells – or induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), to be exact. Believe it or not, scientist can take cells from your skin, for example and genetically reprogram them to resemble embryonic stem cells – in other words, cells that have yet to differentiate into a particular form of tissue. These stem cells are then stimulated to grow into brain cells. Professor Hartung explained that his team had discovered these stem cells could be programmed to develop into different types of brain cells, if exposed to the right cocktail of chemicals.

Within around two months, the minibrains consist of four types of neurons and two kinds of support cells that nurture nerves. What’s exciting is that the brains even display electrical activity, showing that the cells are capable of communicating with each other just as they do in the human brain.

But here’s the really cool thing: if the minibrains are grown from cells of people with certain genetic traits or certain diseases, they can be used to study these conditions. At the moment the scientists are hoping to study Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, multiple sclerosis, and even autism by generating these tailored minibrains.

One of the cell types in the minibrains are oligodendrocytes, the same cells that produce the myelin sheath that becomes damaged in multiple sclerosis. In fact, these cells even develop the important myelin sheaths in the cell culture dish. This gives researchers a unique opportunity to study myelin damage up close and hopefully test out new ways in which the oligodendrocytes can be encouraged to repair the damaged nerve sheath.

The minibrains are just one of many forms of ”organoid” being developed right now, with new technologies allowing primitive livers, kidneys, intestines and other organs to be cultured in the lab. Not only are these set to transform the way drugs are tested in the future, but the same technology might also one day produce more complex organs that could be transplanted into people.

In the meantime, scientists hope the minibrains will go into mass production by the end of this year, and very soon neuroscience research labs everywhere will be able to use them to test new treatments.

In other words, this one breakthrough could lead to many more breakthroughs in the near future. Though minibrains may be small, they are mighty!

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Birgit Bauer
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Birgit Bauer
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