Scientists use small brain-like structures called neural organoids to study brain development and neurological diseases. Neural organoids are typically grown from stem cell cultures that can mimic some, but not all, of the complexities of a developing brain. Recently, a team of researchers from the Netherlands developed a technique for growing organoids from pieces of fetal brain tissue that offers a more realistic model of human brain development.
The researchers obtained tissue samples from unpaid elective abortion patients between 12 and 15 weeks postconception. Over the course of six months in a growth medium, the samples expanded into structures roughly the size of a grain of rice that contained different types of neurons and support cells. Unlike neural organoids derived from stem cells, the tissue-derived organoids were found to produce their own three-dimensional network of scaffolding proteins that allowed them to self-organize into structures resembling the region of the brain that the tissue samples originated from. The team demonstrated the organoids’ potential for brain cancer studies by using the gene-editing technique CRISPR-Cas9 to create tumors within the organoids and then examined their response to several cancer-treating drugs. The researchers note that, despite their complexity, these brain organoids are unlikely to feel pain or become conscious because they lack sensory input and the ability to communicate with other brain regions.
Research on aborted tissue is a controversial topic, so it may be difficult for scientists elsewhere in the world to obtain and work with fetally derived organoids. In the U.S. and the Netherlands, research on aborted fetal tissue is currently legal but requires informed consent from pregnant donors and prohibits payment for their donation. Although the tissue can be challenging to obtain, the researchers found that the new organoids grew steadily for many months and that they could also be multiplied to extend the research lifetime of a small number of samples.
This study was led by researchers at the Hubrecht Institute and the Princess Máxima Center for Pediatric Oncology in Utrecht, Netherlands, including senior authors Delilah Hendriks, Hans Clevers, and Benedetta Artegiani.
Managing Correspondent: Alexandra Hartman
Press Article: First brain organoids grown from fetal tissue offer window on development (Science News)
Original Journal Article: Human fetal brain self-organizes into long-term expanding organoids (Cell)
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