3D printed mini-brains grown in test tubes used to study degenerative disease

The brains have been grown from stem cells to mimic the progression of disease including Alzheimer's.

Scientists from Tufts University have developed test-tube brains through 3D printing and stem cells in order to tackle a range of degenerative diseases.

On Thursday, the Tufts-led team said the human tissue cultural models have been printed in order to mimic both the structure and nervous system of the brain, as well as "demonstrate neural activity sustained over a period of many months."

Published in the academic journal ACS Biomaterials Science & Engineering, a paper describing the research explains how the 3D brain tissue is able to survive for a minimum of nine months.

The brains are grown from a mixture of silk protein and collagen. These ingredients are then mixed with cells harvested from patients with Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, and other conditions.

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Tufts University

As the brains' neural networks grow, develop, and change, the researchers are able to track the tissue's progress.

A live example of how diseases impact the brain, in comparison to how scientists are usually only able to harvest cells once a patient is deceased, offers an opportunity to understand degenerative diseases far more extensively.

The longevity of the samples is key in tracking disease progression and uncovering markers of diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. If we can diagnose these diseases earlier, more effective treatment could also be possible.

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"We observed similar growth and gene expression, which indicates the feasibility of generating patient-derived brain tissue models," the scientists say. "These could be used to uncover early-stage biomarkers of the disease state, in turn supporting earlier diagnosis and improving understanding of disease progression."

The team says that the tissue models can also be injected with healthy cells, which could further our understanding of how the brain and neural networks typically operate -- as well as how trauma can impact the organ and its processes.

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These test-tube brains could potentially also act as a replacement for drug trials designed to tackle such diseases in the future. Instead of testing new treatments on live patients, the tissue models could be injected with drugs and their response to treatment can be monitored in a lab.

"The growth of neural networks is sustained and very consistent in the 3D tissue models, whether we use cells from healthy individuals or cells from patients with Alzheimer's or Parkinson's disease," said William Cantley, Ph.D. and first author of the study. "That gives us a reliable platform to study different disease conditions and the ability to observe what happens to the cells over the long term."

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In the future, the researchers intend to further explore the opportunities 3D tissue and stem cell0-based models offer with advanced imaging techniques and the introduction of other cell types.

This work was supported by the National Institutes of Health, including the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering and the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

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