Scientific Breakthroughs

Neuroscientists Model Human Diseases Like Zika, Alzheimer’s In a Dish

Neuroscientists Model Human Diseases Like Zika, Alzheimer's In a Dish
PHOTOGRAPH: Novartis | Scientists in collaboration with pharmaceutical companies, have looked at how diseases like the Zika virus infect the brain, using organoids.

A game changer in medical research and disease prevention has emerged. Organoids, tiny clusters of cells that organize themselves into mini versions of vital organs like the brain, continue to gain huge interest in the scientific world.

During the Society for Neuroscience meeting held in San Diego late last year, researchers underscored the importance of the rudimentary networks of cells (so tiny they could fit on a pin head) called minibrains in studying diseases. Of particular interest to many is how the tiny brains grown in a laboratory can help uncover drug therapy for Zika and Alzheimer’s Disease.

Studying Zika

It turns out that Zika virus tends to disrupt human brain formation during the early stages of fetal development. Pharmaceutical company Novartis tweeted, “Spreading to 70+ countries, ZikaVirus is a global threat. Our expedited discovery looks at how it infects the brain.”

Novartis has collaborated with the Harvard Stem Cell Institute and interacted with Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard’s Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research. Investors in neuroscience at the Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research noted that during the first few months, the organoids do a really good job in the recapitulation of normal brain development.

With the advent of a cell reprogramming process that enables researchers to coax any cell in the body back into a stem cell-like state which then differentiates into some of the different types of cells found in a real brain, researchers were able to generate previously inaccessible human tissues in a petri dish. They then closely studied them.

A minibrain, said a professor of neurology at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, Maryland, is basically like a ball of cells that cluster together. Open it up and you see something very similar to the early embryonic brain.

Though with miniscule fraction of the number of cells of an actual brain, a minibrain grows much the way a real brain does during early pregnancy. Given that, researchers were able to unravel the medical mystery that involves the deadly Zika virus.

Interestingly, scientists are presenting minibrain research as a model not only in Zika but also in brain cancer and disorders like Down syndrome. Knowing the specific cellular mechanisms of many diseases states can help scientists devise newer and more targeted treatment options.

The Case With Alzheimer’s

Minibrain studies of other disorders, such as Alzheimer’s, are also in the offing. It must be noted that for such a disease that progresses over a long span of time, early defense or preventive health management is crucial.

Neurologist Richard Isaacson emphasized that lifestyle changes may slow the onset of symptoms. These include eating healthy and exercising regularly. Limiting intake of processed foods and adhering to the Mediterranean diet are highly recommended.

Incremental changes,  Isaacson said, do make a difference. Given that the current number of Americans with Alzheimer’s is expected to further increase by 2050, prevention or early defense is the message that public health experts have always reiterated.

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