Aston University scientists growing human ''mini brains''

Aston University is leading MESO BRAIN research project
Aston University is leading the MESO BRAIN research project

14 September 2017

  • 1.2 million Britons estimated to be facing dementia by 2040
  • Remarkable work led by Aston University involves the creation of human “mini-brains,” grown from skin cells in the laboratory
  • Research partners include experts in 3D nanoprinting, who are developing tiny scaffolds on which to grow brain cells

Birmingham scientists who are growing human brain cells in the laboratory say their work could one day help combat the damage caused by Alzheimer’s and other brain traumas.

The “miniature brains” start out as human skin cells, before a team at Aston University turns them into stem cells and then brain cells. At the moment, these “mini-brains” are less than 2mm across but the multi-disciplinary MESO-BRAIN team, led by Professor Edik Rafailov, is also researching how to create bigger, 3D brain cell clusters using tiny scaffold-like structures and nanoprinting.

Professor Rafailov, from the Aston Institute of Photonic Technologies, said: “This is kind of science fiction. We’re trying to help neurons to connect and to grow together so that, ultimately, we can build 3D models of the brain. We’re also trying to find the right materials and shapes with which we can create 3D scaffolds, to help create the ideal conditions for neurons to grow in.” 

Dementia is now the leading cause of death in England and Wales, and it is estimated that 1.2million people in England and Wales alone will be battling dementia by 2040. It’s a similar story elsewhere. In the US, for example, Alzheimer’s is one of the biggest killers and an estimated 5.4million people have the disease.

Dr Eric Hill, the Programme Director for MSc Stem cells and Regenerative Medicine at Aston University, said:  “This work is incredibly exciting – what we’re attempting to build is something that will act like real brain tissue. But we face some real challenges, beyond the difficulties of creating human brain tissue.

“Conditions such as Alzheimer’s present themselves in older patients – so we need to find a way of accelerating the ageing process in our laboratory brains so that we can understand how the diseases work. However, these models will allow us to better understand how these disease develop and allow us to screen new drugs that could target disease.”

Experiments using stem cells in the fight against brain diseases are still at a very early stage and, of course, it is far too soon to say whether this approach could help dementia patients. But the hope is that such experiments will, at the very least, grant scientists new insights into how diseases such as Alzheimer’s function.

The MESO-BRAIN initiative has received €3.3million of funding from the European Commission, and Aston University is leading the project, with partners from industry and higher education throughout Europe.

Scientists from a broad range of disciplines are involved – this project is a great example of interdisciplinary research in action – including stem cell biologists, neuroscientists, photonics experts and physicists. Two groups of experts come from Aston University – one from the Aston Institute of Photonic Technologies, and one from Aston Research Centre for Healthy Ageing.

Professor Rafailov said:  “It’s no exaggeration to say the MESO-BRAIN project could improve and prolong hundreds of thousands of lives.”


Notes to editors 

Prof Edik Rafailov is a fellow at the Aston Institute of Photonic Technologies. His research interests include photonics and nanoscience, and optoelectronics and biomedical photonics. 

Dr Eric Hill completed his BSc and PhD at Aston University before becoming a postdoctoral research fellow there in 2005. His main research interests centre on developing tissue engineering strategies to model stem cell behaviour in the development of neuronal networks and during neurodegeneration. 

The MESO-BRAIN consortium partners bring highly specific skills and knowledge to this project, including expertise in stem cells, photonics, physics, 3D nanoprinting, electrophysiology, molecular biology, imaging and commercialisation. The partners are:

Aston University (UK): Aston Institute of Photonic Technologies (School of Engineering and Applied Science) is one of the largest photonic groups in the UK and an internationally recognised research centre in the fields of lasers, fibre-optics, high-speed optical communications, nonlinear and biomedical photonics. The Cell & Tissue Biomedical Research Group (Aston Research Centre for Healthy Ageing) combines collective expertise in genetic manipulation, tissue engineering and neuronal modelling with electrophysiological and optical analysis of human iPSC-derived neural networks. 

Axol Bioscience Ltd (UK): Founded to fulfil the unmet demand for human iPSC-derived cells for use in biomedical research and drug discovery.
The Laser Zentrum Hannover (Germany): A leading research organisation in the fields of laser development, material processing, laser medicine and laser-based nanotechnologies. 

Neurophysics Group at University of Barcelona (Spain): Experts in combining experiments with theoretical and computational modelling to infer functional connectivity in neuronal circuits. 
The Institute of Photonic Sciences (Spain): World-leading research centre in photonics with expertise in microscopy techniques including light sheet imaging. 

Kite Innovation (UK):Helping bridge the gap between the academic and business sectors in supporting collaboration, enterprise and knowledge-based business development. 

For more information, contact Kenny Campbell on 07824 156311 or [email protected]