Usually, when scientists want to study a prescription drug’s effectiveness at curing disease, they use lab animals like mice as test subjects and then relate the data they find to humans. But this method has its drawbacks; after all, human body functions much differently than a mouse’s. With a fairly recent breakthrough in biotechnology, now it’s actually possible to create miniature organs in a lab that function just like organs within the human body, making it exponentially easier to study disease processes and to test new drugs. These miniature organs, or organoids, have incredible potential which is still being explored.
The growing of organoids started out in 2008, when, amazingly, a team of Japanese researchers reported having created tissue that resembled the cerebral cortex of a human brain. How did they do it? It was, as you may have guessed, a complex process that’s probably only easily understandable to molecular biologists.
Researchers placed embryonic stem cells from both mice and humans in a 3D media made from a special type of gel. From there, they were able to prompt the cells to eventually form what they called “layered balls reminiscent of a cerebral cortex.” Even since then, organoids have grown more advanced. Researchers at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital have created a fullyfunctioning stomach organoid, and others at Ohio State University have created almost a complete embryonic human brain.
Besides the fascination of actually being able to recreate human organs, research looks forward to making major breakthroughs in studying diseases affecting the brain, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. The nearly complete brain specimens created recently are ideal because different diseases affect different parts of the brain; for example, Parkinson’s affects the midbrain. Scientists say there’s still a long way to go, and methods need to become more widespread in order for intensive study to take place. But there’s no doubt that organoids are a major success for modern medicine.