Scientists Grow Small Chunks of Brain Tissue From Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells

Induced pluripotent stem cells are made from adult cells by means of genetic engineering techniques that introduce into the cells a combination for four different genes that drive the cells to de-differentiate into a cell that has many of the characteristics of embryonic stem cells without the destruction of embryos.

A new study from the laboratory of Juergen Knoblich at the Institute of Molecular Biotechnology in Vienna has mixed induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) to form structures of the human brain. He largely left the cells alone to allow them to form the brain tissue, but he also placed them in a spinning bioreactor that constantly circulates the culture medium and provides nutrients and oxygen to the cells. One other growth factor he supplied to the cells was retinoic acid, which is made by the meninges that surround our brains. All of this and the cells not only divided, differentiated and assembled, but they formed brain structures that had all the connections of a normal brain. These brain-like chunks of tissue are called “mini-brains” and the recent edition of the journal Nature reports their creation.

“It’s a seminal study to making a brain in a dish,” says Clive Svendsen, a neurobiologist at the University of California, Los Angeles. Svendsen was not involved in this study, but wishes he was. Of this study, Svendsen exclaimed, “That’s phenomenal” A fully formed artificial brain is still years and years away, but the pea-sized neural clumps developed in Knoblich’s laboratory could prove useful for researching human neurological diseases.

Researchers have previously used pluripotent human stem cells to grow structures that resemble the developing eye (Eiraku, M. et al. Nature 472, 51–56 (2011), and even tissue layers similar to the cerebral cortex of the brain (Eiraku, M. et al. Cell Stem Cell 3, 519–532 (2008). However, this latest advance has seen bigger and more complex neural-tissue clumps by first growing the stem cells on a synthetic gel that resembled natural connective tissues found in the brain and elsewhere in the body. After growing them on the synthetic gel, Knoblich and his colleagues transferred the cells to a spinning bioreactor that infuses the cells with nutrients and oxygen.

“The big surprise was that it worked,” said Knoblich. The clump formed structures that resembled the brains of fetuses in the ninth week of development.

Under a microscope, the blobs contained discrete brain regions that seemed to interact with one another. However, the overall arrangement of the different proto-brain areas varied randomly across tissue samples. These structures were not recognizable physiological structures.

A cross-section of a brain-like clump of neural cells derived from human stem cells.
A cross-section of a brain-like clump of neural cells derived from human stem cells.

“The entire structure is not like one brain,” says Knoblich, who added that normal brain maturation in an intact embryo is probably guided by growth signals from other parts of the body. The tissue balls also lacked blood vessels, which could be one reason that their size was limited to 3–4 millimeters in diameter, even after growing for 10 months or more.

Despite these limitations, Knoblich and his collaborators used this system to model key aspects of microcephaly, which is a condition that causes extremely stunted brain growth and cognitive impairment. Microcephaly and other neurodevelopmental disorders are difficult to replicate in rodents because the brains of rodents develop differently than those of humans.

Knoblich and others found that tissue chunks cultured from stem cells derived from the skin of a single human with microcephaly did not grow as large as clumps grown from stem cells derived from a healthy person. When they traced this effect, they discovered that it was due to the premature differentiation of neural stem cells inside the microcephalic tissue chunks, which depleted the population of progenitor cells that fuels normal brain growth.

The findings largely confirm prevailing theories about microcephaly, says Arnold Kriegstein, a developmental neurobiologist at the University of California, San Francisco. But, he adds, the study also demonstrates the potential for using human-stem-cell-derived tissues to model other disorders, if cell growth can be controlled more reliably.

“This whole approach is really in its early stages,” says Kriegstein. “The jury may still be out in terms of how robust this is.”


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Professor of Biochemistry at Spring Arbor University (SAU) in Spring Arbor, MI. Have been at SAU since 1999. Author of The Stem Cell Epistles. Before that I was a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, PA (1997-1999), and Sussex University, Falmer, UK (1994-1997). I studied Cell and Developmental Biology at UC Irvine (PhD 1994), and Microbiology at UC Davis (MA 1986, BS 1984).