John Hopkins Develops Mini-brains For Drug Testing.


It has been discovered that most new drugs tested on mice don’t really work on humans. We know about lab rats don’t we? John Hopkins’ Bloomberg school’s Dr. Thomas Hartung said that those drugs tested on mice don’t work in humans because we’re not 150 pounds rats. He and his team have designed and grown “mini-brains” which they believe are better test subjects than the mice for drug development, this is because they were derived from human cells. These brains are so tiny, they are about 350micrometers in diameter, that is the size of the eye of a housefly, and takes about two weeks for it (the mini-brain) to become fully functional after creation.

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. And even though we are not balls of cells either, you can often get much better information from these balls of cells than from rodents.

Thomas Hartung
Professor and Chair for Evidence-based Toxicology, Bloomberg School

The John Hopkins hospital is one of the world’s greatest hospitals and has been ranked as the best overall hospital in America for 21 consecutive years (1991-2011). Many specialties like neurosurgery, cardiac surgery, pediatrics and child psychiatry were formed there. Remember Dr. Ben Carson? Yea he did that separation of the conjoined twins there and here comes another achievement from the great John Hopkins.

In making the mini brains, the scientists programmed adult skin cells into embryonic stem cells and them grew them for months, long enough time for the brains to develop four types of neurons and two support cells which are astrocytes and oligodendrocytes. On testing the mini-brains, the team put them on an electrode array listening to the electrical communication as they added the drugs. Because of their sizes, researchers can grow a hundred of on a single petri dish, while each batch can produce thousands of identical copies.

The team said that they didn’t have the first brain model as other institutes like Brown University  had developed in-vitro cell clumps before, neither are they saying that they have the best ones but they said theirs were the most standardized ones. This supported the idea that on testing drugs, it is important that the cells being studied are as similar as possible, to ensure the most accurate results.

Right now, Thomas Hartung (who also directs John Hopkins’ Center for Alternatives to Animal Testing) is building ORGANOME, a company in hopes of starting the mass production of his mini-brains by this year. He also hope that laboratories all over the world adopts the practice of making them for use on brain related research while animal testing could still be used for other forms of experiments. If his brain models becomes a norm, its potential application could kick off by using of skin cells from afflicted individuals to grow tiny brains to study autism and some certain diseases.

“We believe that the future of brain research will include less reliance on animals, more reliance on human, cell-based models,” said Hartung. “Only when we can have brain models like this in any lab at any time will we be able to replace animal testing on a large scale.”

During lab testing, millions of animals around the world are used, PETA (An animal advocacy group) have aired their views about the need to end this practice, with this new research less animals will be used for testing, someday, none will.