New Lab Grown Mini-Brains the Key to Ending Animal Testing?

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Feb 15, 2016 06:00 PM EST

CHONGQING, CHINA - FEBRUARY 20: (CHINA OUT) Doctors carry out a hemorrhagic shock experiment on white rats in a laboratory of Daping Hospital on February 20, 2008 in Chongqing Municipality, China. During the experiment, doctors anaesthetised the rat and cut its femoral artery, making it hemorrhage. After two hours, the doctors gave it transfusion to revive the rat. The hospital uses over 10,000 rats and mice for medical research annually. (Photo by China Photos/Getty Images) (Photo : Getty Images)

A team of researchers is now growing small cellular balls that act like small brains that claim to replicate the functions of a real brain. With this, the researchers hope this could one day end the use of animals in laboratory testing.

Ars Technica reports that a team of researchers from Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health has collaborated with other medical researchers around the country to culture "mini-brains" in the lab. The researchers detailed how they have successfully developed mini-brains made up of neurons and cells of the human brain.

To create the mini-brains, the researchers used skin cells from healthy adults as their starting point according to Motherboard. For eight weeks, these cells were cultivated to grow into brain cells. After eight weeks, the mini brains develop four types of cells and two types of support cells, known as astrocytes and oligodendorcytes. One of the cells creates myelin that insulates the neuron's axons and allows cells to communicate faster.

According to study leader Thomas Hartung, professor and chair for Evidence-based Toxicology at the Bloomberg School, 95 percent of drugs that show promise during animal testing fail once they are tested on humans with great expense of time and money.

"While rodent models have been useful, we are not 150-pound rats. And even though we are not balls of cells either, you can often get much better information from these balls of cells than from rodents," Hartung was quoted by Motherboard in a press release.

The findings were announced last Friday during the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington. The "mini-brains" that can be personalized based on whose cells they came from also aim to help scientists study a wide variety of diseases and health problems, from autism and Parkinson's to multiple sclerosis and Alzheimer's. This revolutionary process claims to offer accurate test results and could aid in the development of new and more effective drugs.

"There are a variety of places where a mini brain could be useful," Wayne Drevets of Janssen Pharmaceuticals Inc. was quoted by Ars Technica. Drevets, who was not involved with the research, offers his opinion about the revolutionary process. He and the other researchers at the conference added that the process may offer a cheaper, more ethical and more realistic model for human health than mice and other animals.

Motherboard reports that millions of animals around the world are used for laboratory testing. Animal groups such as PETA and the Human Society have expressed their disapproval based on moral and economical grounds.

According to Hartung, hundreds of mini-brains can be grown from the same batch of cells, around a hundred in a single petri dish. He is currently applying for a patent for his mini-brains and plans to produce them commercially in 2016.

Check out a report by Discovery Channel on a similar technology:

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