U of M Researcher Lands Innovation Corps Commercialization Grant for ‘Mini-Brain’ Project
A University of Minnesota stem cell scientist working on a way to treat neurological diseases by growing “mini-brains in a dish” has received a grant from a federal program meant to help speed the commercialization of biotech research.
Timothy O’Brien, a professor of veterinary medicine and member of the U of M’s Stem Cell Institute, has landed $50,000 from the National Science Foundation’s Innovation Corps (I-Corps) program. The U’s MIN-Corps is one of the national hubs of the NSF program, which seeks to boost research-based technology commercialization capabilities and activities across the country.
O’Brien’s work is in “cerebral organoids,” which are essentially artificially-grown miniature organs resembling the human brain, derived from a patient’s own stem cells. These tiny organs are created by culturing the cells in a rotational bioreactor and using a three-dimensional growing culture. After a growth period of around a month, the organoids show signs of developing neural pathways and other characteristics of brain tissue.
Biologists see these “mini-brains” as holding great potential for the development of drugs for neurological problems such as Parkinson’s, where they could act as “pharmaceutical screens” to measure toxic effects.
More broadly, they view cerebral organoids as having many potential applications, such as the development of in vitro disease models for human genetic conditions where animal models aren’t sufficient. They represent a leap from the current capabilities of growing human tissue in lab settings as they are more like actual human organs, such as the brain, in a micro-miniature form.
As described in the I-Corps grant, the commercialization potential of O’Brien’s research is in making the production of these cerebral organoids easier and more efficient.
The U researcher said the project is aimed at developing a “robust and simple method for generating cerebral organoids” from stem cells with the aid of a novel hydrogel material and a three-dimensional growing culture medium.
“We are actively pursuing applications of these organoids for the study of human neurological conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and childhood cerebral adrenoleukodystrophy, as well as their use as a source of therapeutic cells for transplantation to patients with Parkinson’s disease,” O’Brien wrote in the I-Corps grant proposal.
A key element of the approach is the use of a Minnesota-developed growing culture produced by Bioactive Regenerative Therapeutic Inc., located in Two Harbors. Its patented Cell-Mate 3-D cell cultures allow the organoids to grow in three dimensions.
Cell culture is an important tool for biological research which for years has been dominated by two-dimensional models in which stem cell-derived tissue cultures are grown tissue in flat layers on plastic surfaces. The problem is this does not accurately reflect conditions in the body, and adversely affects proliferation, differentiation, gene expression and response to stimuli.
Advances in material sciences now allow for 3-D cultures such as Cell-Mate, which uses a proprietary gel to mimic human tissues and thus promote natural gene expression in the growing cells.