Growing brains in a test-tube could unlock secrets to disease

25 Mar 2019
Growing brains in a test-tube could unlock secrets to disease

In a laboratory in the heart of Adelaide, researchers are working to find a way to stop, or at least slow, the progression of Parkinson’s disease – and they’ve some promising signs. 

Leading the work is neurobiologist Cedric Bardy, a French national, whose area of expertise lies in human neural stem-cell models. At the centre of the work at SAHMRI is the hi-tech reprogramming of skin cells to mirror brain tissue, so researchers can better understand what is going on in the brains of people with conditions such as Parkinson’s and dementia. 

“We can’t just go into a person’s brain and take a biopsy and study it so, instead, we’re reprogramming skin cells into stem cells,” Dr Bardy says. “From there we can create any type of tissue, including live human brain tissue. 

“We’ve these amazing tools where we can look at the intricate function of brain cells (and how) they communicate with each other within a neural circuit that resembles the human brain. The details we can access by growing brains in a test tube are unlimited and might be the key to discovering better treatments for brain disorders. We’re comparing the live brain tissues from people with Parkinson’s to those without the disease to understand what the differences are.” 

Dr Bardy says the hope is to find a way to slow or stop the progression of the disease – his team is concentrating on protecting the brain cells that are still functioning before the disease kills them. 

“While there is currently no cure, there are treatments to manage the symptoms but the degeneration keeps going on in the background,” he says. “Our aim is to stop or slow down that process and give people affected by Parkinson’s extra years of quality life.” 

Dr Bardy says researchers remain hopeful of a breakthrough and there is good cause to be optimistic. “We’ve been working on this project for about a year and there are some exciting aspects to it,” he says. “For example, we’ve noticed the energy levels in cells taken from patients with Parkinson’s disease drop much quicker than those from healthy subjects of the same age. So we are trying to come up with new and creative ways to restore the energy in those cells.” 

This story was reproduced with permission from The Advertiser.