Brain ‘organoids’, a futuristic innovation inspired by traditional Japanese art

Researchers have been inspired by the ancient Japanese art of flower arranging for a groundbreaking technique to develop tiny “artificial brains”. These brains could be used to create personalized cancer treatments.

The organoids, which are clusters of thousands of human brains, will not be able to perform basic brain functions, let alone generate thought. However, they impart a far more authentic model — the first of its kind — for studying how brain tumours grow and how they can be stopped.

“This puts the tumour within the context of a brain, instead of a flat plastic dish,” said Christian Naus, a professor in the department of cellular and physiological sciences, who developed the project while collaborating with a Japanese company that specializes in bioprinting. Naus shared details about the technique at November’s annual Society for Neuroscience conference in San Diego. “When cells grow in three dimensions instead of two, adhering only to each other and not to plastic, an entirely different set of genes are activated.”

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Christian Naus (Photo courtesy of UBC).

His area of study is glioblastoma, an especially aggressive brain cancer, originating deep inside the brain which easily spreads. The standard care is surgery followed by radiation and/or chemotherapy. However, gliomas, almost always return as a few malignant cells are able to leave the tumour and invade surrounding brain tissue. Average survival from the time of diagnosis is one year.

The idea for developing a more authentic model of glioblastoma came after Naus partnered with a Japanese biotechnology company, Cyfuse. This company has created a particular technique for printing human tissues based on the Japanese art of flower arranging known as ikebana. In ikebana, artists use a heavy plate with brass needles sticking up, upon which the stems of flowers are affixed. In Cyfuse’s bioprinting technique a much smaller plate covered with microneedles is used.

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In ikebana, artists use a heavy plate with brass needles sticking up, upon which the stems of flowers are affixed. In Cyfuse’s bioprinting technique a much smaller plate covered with microneedles is used. (Photo courtesy of UBC).

“The cells make their own environment,” said Naus, Canada Research Chair in Gap Junctions and Neurological Disorders. “We’re not doing anything except printing them, and then they self-assemble.”

The team then placed cancerous cells inside the organoids. Naus noted the gliomas spread into the surrounding normal cells.

Having shown that the tumour attacks  the surrounding tissue, Naus anticipates that such a technique could be used with a patient’s own cells – including both their normal and cancerous cells – in order to grow a personalized organoid with a glioma at its core. This enables researchers to test a variety of possible drugs or combinations of treatment to find out if any of them stop the cancer growing and invading surrounding tissues.

“With this method, we can easily and authentically replicate a model of the patient’s brain, or at least some of the conditions under which a tumour grows in that brain,” said Naus. “Then we could feasibly test hundreds of different chemical combinations on that patient’s cells to identify a drug combination that shows the most promising result, offering a personalized therapy for brain cancer patients.”

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