When scientists are testing out new drug treatments or trying to model a disease, they usually rely on human tissue samples from whatever kind of tissue they’re targeting. This method can be expensive, and samples are often difficult to come by.
The development of a new technology known as organoids offers a promising pathway to address these challenges.
Organoids are models of different human tissues that allow scientists to test new treatments without the use of real human tissue samples. Organoids are grown in the lab from stem cells and make miniature models of the human brain, heart, or other organs and tissues.
However, the use of these organoids has been severely limited by the fact that they are much less complex than our actual tissues in terms of structure and function. They also face issues growing and developing past a certain point, as scientists can’t effectively deliver nutrients and oxygen to cells at the core of the organoid.
Assistant Professor Xueju “Sophie” Wang in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering has received a $643,591 Trailblazer Award from the National Institutes of Health to develop innovative technical solutions to these limitations, in collaboration with co-investigators Yi Zhang, assistant professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering, and Yan Li of Florida State University.
Wang will develop and evaluate two technologies through this grant. The first is a 3-D electronic network that will stimulate the organoid and allow researchers to monitor it in 3-D. Currently, scientists usually evaluate the organoids in two dimensions, meaning it’s difficult to understand their 3-D functioning.
The device will allow scientists to monitor the organoid’s microenvironment, including temperature, oxygen levels, and optogenetics, which is controlling the activity of neurons with light.
The device will also use electric impulses to stimulate the organoid to help it develop more complexity as the cells differentiate during the growth process.
The brain organoids Wang will be working with look like lumpy balls of cells, about the size of a pea. A more complex brain organoid will have more layers that scientists have previously been able to achieve.
Wang will implant her tiny device into a brain organoid from the start of its development to observe how it interacts with the organoid.
Secondly, Wang will develop a microvasculature that mimics the function of human blood vessels. This will allow scientists to deliver the oxygen and nutrients the organoid needs to grow and develop.
“We look forward to seeing what the interaction will look like because this is one of the first studies in the field to see how the electronics and microfluidics interface with biological tissues,” Wang says.
Wang will send the mini device for organoids out to Li for evaluation. Li is an expert in developing brain organoids and will help Wang evaluate the efficacy of her devices.
While Wang will focus on brain organoids, her technologies could be applied to other organoids as well.
“We hope we can develop those complicated organoids that represent or resemble the real human organs so we can use them, for example, for drug screening, or for developing disease models without using real human samples,” Wang says.