A team of scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison claims to have 3D printed functional human brain tissue for the first time.
They hope their research could open the door to developing treatments for existing neurological disorders, including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
As detailed in a new paper published in the magazine cell stem cellThe team reversed the usual 3D printing method, manufacturing horizontal layers of brain cells coated in a soft “bio-ink” gel.
“The tissue still has enough structure to hold together, but it is soft enough to allow neurons to grow into each other and begin to communicate with each other,” said co-author and professor of neuroscience at the University of Washington in Madison, Su- Chun Zhang, in an article. statement.
Thanks to this arrangement, each of these neurons, which grew from pluripotent stem cells, had sufficient access to oxygen and nutrients from the growth media.
In experiments, cells began to form networks, much like the human brain, and could even communicate with each other through the neurotransmitters they formed.
“We printed the cerebral cortex and the striatum and what we found was quite surprising,” Zhang explained in the statement. “Even when we printed different cells belonging to different parts of the brain, they were still able to communicate with each other in a very special and specific way.”
Zhang says 3D-printed cells have a key advantage over organoids, the “mini-brain” tissue models that scientists already use to study the brain.
“Our lab is very special because we can produce virtually any type of neurons at any time,” Zhang said. “Then we can assemble them almost any time and any way we want.”
“We can look very specifically at how nerve cells communicate with each other under certain conditions because we can print exactly what we want,” he added.
Thanks to this flexibility, the team hopes that this system can be used to study how cells communicate with each other, for example in tissues affected by Alzheimer’s disease. The tissue could also be used to evaluate new drug candidates.
“In the past, we often looked at one thing at a time, which means we often overlooked some critical components,” Zhang explained in the statement. “Our brain operates in networks. We want to print brain tissue this way because cells don’t operate on their own. They communicate with each other.”
Best of all, Zhang and his colleagues used a commercially available bioprinter, which could allow other institutions to print their own human brain tissue.
The team is now looking at ways to print cells in predefined orientations, which could allow them to have even more control over the types of brain tissue they can make.
“This could be an enormously powerful model to help us understand how brain cells and parts of the brain communicate in humans,” Zhang said. “It could change the way we view stem cell biology, neuroscience, and the pathogenesis of many neurological and psychiatric disorders.”
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