In 1907, the American zoologist Ross Granville Harrison developed the first technique to artificially grow animal cells outside the body in a liquid medium. Cells are still grown in much the same way in modern laboratories: a single layer of cells is placed in a warm incubator with nutrient-rich broth. These cell layers are often used to test new drugs, but they cannot recapitulate the complexity of a real organ made from multiple cell types within a living, breathing human body.
Growing three-dimensional miniature organs or 'organoids' that behave in a similar way to real organs is the next step towards creating better platforms for drug screening, but there are several difficulties inherent to this process. For one thing, it is hard to recreate the multitude of cell types that make up an organ. For another, the cells that do grow often fail to connect and communicate with each other in biologically realistic ways. It is also tough to grow a large number of organoids that all behave in the same way, making it hard to know whether a particular drug works or whether it is just being tested on a 'good' organoid.
Renner et al. have been able to overcome these issues by using robotic technology to create thousands of identical, mid-brain organoids from human cells in the lab. The robots perform a series of precisely controlled tasks – including dispensing the initial cells into wells, feeding organoids as they grow and testing them at different stages of development. These mini-brains, which are the size of the head of a pin, mimic the part of the brain where Parkinson's disease first manifests. They can be used to test new drugs for Parkinson's, and to better understand the biology of the brain. Perhaps more importantly, other types of organoids can be created using the same technique to model diseases that affect other areas of the brain, or other organs altogether. For example, Renner et al. also generated forebrain organoids using an automated approach for both generation and analysis.
This research, which shows that organoids can be grown and tested in a fully automated, reproducible and scalable way, creates a platform to quickly, cheaply and easily test thousands of drugs for Parkinson's and other difficult-to-treat diseases in a human setting. This approach has the potential to reduce research waste by increasing the chances that a drug that works in the lab will also ultimately work in a patient; and reduce animal experiments, as drugs that do not work in human tissues will not proceed to animal testing.