Scientists Use Stem Cells to Grow Functioning 3D Brain Tissue

Researchers have developed functional human neural networks in 3D from stem cells that could be used to evaluate drug targets for certain neurodegenerative diseases.

Researchers around the world are proving in a number of ways that when the capabilities of 3D modeling and printing and stem cell research come together that many things are possible. Developments involving the use of CRISPR, for instance, are revolutionizing the way that we look at the possibilities of gene editing, with scientists producing work that is received with both praise and criticism.

Now, a team of scientists have produced a working 3D model of human brain tissue. The purpose behind the work was to open up the possibilities for deepening our understanding of how brain cells in cases involving both healthy as well as abnormal samples would interact. 

Achieving consistent results

The team used 3D tissue models in their work, and in order to avoid the biological pitfalls associated with using neurological tissues (which are usually gathered from patients after they have expired, limiting the sample numbers), they used human induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs). This decision allowed them to achieve a much broader and more dynamic range of results.

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This also offered them the ideal means of building upon previous research involving rodent research subjects. Overall, promising results were achieved. Stem cells obtained from healthy subjects as well as those from Parkinson's and Alzheimer's disease patients were used, with the team generating a tissue model that would allow them to 1) observe the levels of gene growth and expression, and 2) assess the possibilities of "generating patient-derived brain tissue models". 

"We found the right conditions to get the iPSCs to differentiate into a number of different neural subtypes, as well as astrocytes that support the growing neural networks," explains Tufts University biomedical engineer and study co-author David L. Kaplan.

An intricate process 

As one would imagine, the process undertaken by the scientists is of a very sophisticated and delicate nature, as Kaplan discusses. "The silk-collagen scaffolds provide the right environment to produce cells with the genetic signatures and electrical signaling found in native neuronal tissues." 

Most importantly, the researchers express their optimism--supported by the successful outcomes--about the future application of this method. "The streamlined process, in combination with the longevity of the cultures, provides a system that can be manipulated to support a variety of experimental applications, including the study of network development, maturation, plasticity, and/or degeneration."

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The long-term target for the researchers is to use this method to evaluate drug targets for neurodegenerative diseases. The incurable and debilitating diseases--which include Huntington's Disease, Alzheimer's Disease and Parkinson's Disease, set up a scenario of cumulative effects that dramatically change the outlook and quality of life for patients. This is why the innovative research of teams like this are offering a glimpse into a future of possibilities involving early detection or possible successful management. 

Details about the study appear in a paper, titled "Functional and sustainable 3D human neural network models from pluripotent stem cells", which was published in the ACS Biomaterials Science & Engineering journal.

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