Mini-Brains: Solution to the Puzzle of Brain Cancer and Stroke

The miniature neural organoids just got creepier when they started growing their own veins. However, the development in mini-brains is the best way to understand stroke, concussion, Alzheimer's, and brain cancer.

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Doorway to Cure Brain Cancer

Don’t judge them by their grotesque look; mini-brains might be our best hope to understand the development of a human brain. The deadly brain cancer has troubled humanity for a long time now. The only way to find a cure of the cancer is by testing drugs on mice, which leads to unreliable results as rodent’s brains are utterly different from humans. According to Dr. Howard Fine, an oncologist at Weill Cornell Medicine, New York, quasi-brains are the best way to study and cure brain cancer.

As we know, glioblastoma has no known cure. Recently, a team of Dr. Fine successfully grew mini-brains of the size of a 20-week-old fetus’s brain. They placed mini-brains with glioblastoma stem cells, and it was observed that the cancer cells locked the mini-brains. According to Fine,  cancer cells drove deep into the brain cells within first 24 hours, which looked exactly like a glioblastoma patient’s brain. The cancer cells developed a network around the brain cells. Scientists believed that such complex network is the reason that tumors show high immunity against chemotherapy. This research is considered as a milestone as we already have several drugs that can dismantle such network and can be used to treat glioblastoma.

These mini-brains became a bit creepy when scientists observed that they can grow veins on their own. At start mini-brains were like a blob on a petri dish, which were chemically coerced into proto-neurons. However, in a recent experiment, they started to grow, fuse with other cells, and show sparks of electricity just like a human brain. In addition, they started to bleed. Even though neural organoids do not remotely resemble adult human brains, they are the best chance to help stroke patients. A constant oxygen and nutrients supply allows mini-brains to grow and develop a complex network of tissues, which doctors could use to replace malfunctioning neurons. Therefore, the development of bleeding mini-brains is a huge step toward finding a cure for stroke and brain cancer patients.

Recently, Ben Waldau, a vascular neurosurgeon at UC Davis Medical Center published a study on vascularized human neural organoids. He explained, “The aim of these organoids is that one day we will be able to develop a brain structure for a patient who has lost a part of his brain. We see CT scans of hundreds of patients but, cannot help them. Moreover, even after a surgery and physiotherapy, patients are left with neural deficits. The use of mini-brains can be beneficial in such cases.”

The team led by Waldau used brain membrane cells from a patient and coaxed their bonding with stem cells. After incubating brain cells for about three weeks, a mini-brain was transplanted into a mouse’s brain, and the mini-brain was found alive two weeks later. Furthermore, it developed veins that penetrated to inner layers of the brain.

The recent studies give a hope for genetically engineered brains to aid the patients with strokes, Alzheimer’s, and brain cancer. Of course, it will take years of research to grow a fully functional human brain. The development of blood vessels is a huge breakthrough, however, the mini-brains will need eyes or some artificial input system to help them experience and learn, to have conscience.

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