Researchers at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health have produced tiny brains made of human neurons and cells. These mini-brains could radically change how drugs are tested, replacing the many animals currently being used for neurological scientific research.
These mini-brains may be small—about the size of a common housefly—but they still exhibit characteristics typical of the real thing. Made from adult human stem cells, these brains aren’t capable of conscious thought or cognition, nor are they capable of experiencing pain or suffering. They can also be mass produced, and they’re standardized, so they’re ideal for lab experiments requiring biologically active brains.
Also known as organoids, the balls of human brain cells are more ethical, and possibly even better, than lab animals, including rats and mice. This work is being presented today at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference in Washington, D.C.
Reducing the amount of animal experimentation that goes on is more than a matter of ethics, there’s also the quality of the science itself to consider. Animals, even when genetically modified, make for poor models of human diseases, particularly those of a neurological nature. As a 2006 study in JAMA pointed out, “patients and physicians should remain cautious about extrapolating the findings of prominent animal research to the care of human disease,” adding that “even high-quality animal studies will replicate poorly in human clinical research.”
It’s a sentiment that’s not lost on Thomas Hartung, a molecular biologist who works out of the Center for Alternatives to Animal Testing (CAAT) at Johns Hopkins, and lead developer of the mini-brain project.
“We are not 150 pound rats,” he told Gizmodo. “Lab animals tend to be young, healthy, identical twins, [and] get a standardized environment and food. Rats live for two years—why should evolution worry about degenerative brain diseases?”
Hartung believes that no scientist should have to use animals just because it’s too complicated to get the alternative to work. That’s why he’s building the mini-brain, one of several exciting high-tech solutions that could change the way scientists do research and testing.