Neurologists at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health announced that they have developed tiny human brains which can be used to replace lab mice and other animals in drug tests, brain research and other fields. Does this move us one step further away from animal testing or one step closer to Dr. Frankenstein?
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. While rodent models have been useful, we are not 150-pound rats.
That was the impetus for the research, according to the study’s leader - Thomas Hartung, professor of environmental health sciences at the Bloomberg School – who presented the findings last weekend at the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference in Washington, D.C.
The brains are grown from stem cells and take two months to reach 350 microns (the width of 7 strands of human hair) in diameter – about the size of the brain of a housefly. One Petri dish can hold 100 identical brains and thousands of identical copies can be grown from those. Each mini-brain has four types of neurons and two types of support cells and can demonstrate spontaneous electrophysiological activity – electrical communication between neurons.
For those concerned about the source of the stem cells, they came from adult skin cells and were genetically reprogrammed to become induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSC). They were then stimulated to become brain cells which grew into identical mini-brains.
Besides drug testing, Hartung says the mini-brains can be used to study Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease and autism and they’re already being used to study viral infections, trauma, strokes and other conditions requiring large numbers of identical brains for tests. Hartung has applied for a patent to produce the standardized mini-brains and is starting a company called ORGANOME to sell the mini-brains online.
Creating thousands of identical mini human brains to replace lab rats and selling them online. Have we crossed a line here? More than one?