Sights on laboratory mini-organs

Tiny models of our thinking organ in petri dishes: brain organoids cause a stir. © Meletios Verras/iStock

Cell structures with characteristics of brains and other organs: In the June issue, bild der wissenschaft reports on developments in the field of organoid technology. The breeds from the laboratory are therefore increasingly developing their potential for basic research and medicine: They enable insights into biological processes and can be used for drug tests and the development of therapies. However, brain organoids from human nerve cells also raise ethical questions.

How do organs work, how do diseases of these functional units of our body arise and how can they be treated? In order to gain insights into these questions, scientists no longer have to research the originals: test tube versions have found their way into research. In organoid technology, laboratory cultures of cells are stimulated by specific procedures to form three-dimensional clusters of cells that have characteristics of specific body structures. Probably the most exciting organoids consist of nerve cells.

In the first sub-article of the title topic, the bdw author Rainer Kurlemann focuses on these brain organoids. He explains how these structures, which are just a few millimeters in size, are made from so-called induced pluripotent stem cells and cultivated. The human nerve cells arrange themselves in a self-organized process in a typical layered architecture that resembles structures in the brain. As the author reports, researchers have recently been able to overcome some of the weaknesses in brain organoid technology, and laboratory cultures are becoming better and better models for science. They also offer some significant advantages over experiments on the brains of laboratory animals.

Exciting potential for basic research and medicine

The process of forming the brain organoids can provide new insights into neuronal development processes and the finished mini-brains can be used for various experimental purposes. The neurons in them have even been shown to interact with each other via electrical impulses. The models can thus provide new insights into the structure and functioning of our mind. However, they are still a long way from the complexity of a complete brain. The organoids are currently used primarily for basic research, but they can also be used to study neuronal diseases such as Parkinson's or growth disorders, according to the article "Brain from a petri dish".

Kurlemann then addresses the topic of organoid technology more comprehensively: He reports on how researchers use other organoid systems to research diseases, test drugs and improve therapies. Intestines, lungs, heart... - the human organ system is now being researched in an increasingly sophisticated way using the model tissues. The technology is also increasingly being used in a practice-oriented manner and therefore has enormous potential for medicine, the author reports in the article "The Simulated Human".

Among other things, researchers are trying to track down the causes of cancer and to explore therapy options using special versions of the mini-organs. Because the process of induced pluripotent stem cells can be used to grow organoids from specific patients and with specific disease characteristics.

The title story is rounded off by an interview that Kurlemann conducted with the bioethicist Hannah Schickl from the Berlin Institute of Health at the Charité in Berlin. It is about ethical concerns that arise in some people, especially in the case of brain organoids. Is there any concern that these entities will develop some kind of consciousness? "The ability to feel is crucial," emphasizes Schickl and explains why she has not yet seen any need for special regulations.

You can read the articles on the cover topic "Brain from the laboratory" online as part of a bdw+ subscription or you can find them in the June issue of bild der wissenschaft, which will be available in stores from May 16th.

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