MPG White Paper Emeritus Group

Project Group: "White Paper - Animal Research in the Max Planck Society"
Brain Organoids: Alternatives to Animal Testing in Neuroscience

Dr. Thomas Rauen
Professor Dr. Hans R. Schöler

During the past few years, some members of the former department of Prof. Dr. Hans Schöler became increasingly involved in using human pluripotent stem cells to study molecular processes during reprogramming and to effectively model human diseases, as they may not be fully recapitulated in animal models. Unlike reprogramming somatic cells in a dish, in vivo reprogramming converts tissue-resident somatic cells into multipotent tissue-specific precursors that are capable of repairing tissues damaged by injury or aging, thereby opening up a new therapeutic avenue. As these induced progenitor cells are already embedded into the proper microenvironment for a given organ, we can take advantage of the natural cell environment to guide and foster subsequent differentiation and maintenance of heterogeneous daughter cell types, thus replenishing the heterogeneous cell types that are required to form an organ. This process is akin to normal tissue repair in adult organs, and we propose that it can be triggered also in organs that do not have the natural ability for self-repair, such as the brain. For obvious reasons, establishing and studying cell reprogramming in situ, in a patient’s brain, is not possible. To bridge the insurmountable gap between current in vitro and in vivo research in human tissue, we have engineered model 3D in vivo–like human tissues with the emerging technology of iPS-cell-derived organoids, and we are able to explore the mechanisms underlying cellular reprogramming of cells in their natural niche. My team systematically explores and optimizes the process of converting tissue-resident somatic cells into progenitor cells that are capable of repairing damaged tissues. By further combining these approaches with high-throughput liquid handling strategies, we induce non-pluripotent somatic progenitor cells in situ in a freely scalable system, enabling the generation of arbitrary numbers of 3D tissue samples. We have established a novel platform-screening technology for efficiently exploring a variety of transcription factors and small molecules that are capable of inducing tissue-specific precursors in damaged or aging human tissues for organ self-repair. Successful induction of tissue-specific precursor cells in their natural organ microenvironment is a key step toward implementing in vivoreprogramming, and thus overcoming a wide variety of age- and injury-related disorders.

Enabling the generation of aging tissues is of particular relevance in aging societies, which experience a decline of multiple brain functions (such as cognition, memory, and learning) with age and the associated significant impact on the quality of life. However, in neurosciencemouse animal experiments are still the most accepted model and are considered to be the standard. There is a large discrepancy between the neurobiology of human and murine systems; however, currently available human 2D cell culture models are barely able to adequately depict the complex neurophysiology of the human central nervous system (CNS). New 3D-based culture systems (organoids) for human neural cells are considered to be an attractive alternative method, but the protocols established so far show a very heterogeneous quality of results regarding reproducibility, cellular composition, tissue aging and vascularization, among other variables. The overall goal of my team is therefore the establishment of human iPS-cell–derived multicellular organoid systems that would provide an organ-like complex cell composition, cell architecture, and cell function like those in the native human CNS. The team has successfully established the generation of complex brain organoid cultures containing neurons and glial cells. The team is currently developing methods to generate more organized 3D cultures that have a more complex cellular composition and architecture and that incorporate different neuron-subtypes (excitatory, inhibitory), glia cells (oligodendrocytes, microglia, ependymal cells), and endothelial cells (vascularization). Although brain organoids derived by the Lancaster protocol develop discrete brain regions within the 3D tissue, the lack of the body axes, however, causes these different brain regions within the organoid not to organize themselves like they do in vivo. Under these conditions, one cannot predict whether a certain brain region will develop within an organoid and if so, to what extent. We aim to circumvent the lack of reproducibility by the development of protocols for brain region–specific organoids (BRSO), producing homogeneous and reproducible human 3D cerebral tissues that have already been successfully established in the lab for retina, hypothalamus and cortex organoids. To investigate the interaction of different brain regions, BRSOs are organized in a modular system. To stimulate neuronal connections between the brain regions they will be continuously stimulated and monitored by advanced electrophysiological techniques. Another caveat of existing protocols for generating brain organoids is that the organoids produced contain more neurons but fewer glia cells than the human brain. Interestingly, iPS cells generated with artificially engineered Sox and POU factors are more effective in promoting organoid growth compared with conventional transcription factor cocktails. Therefore, we will improve existing reprogramming protocols, leading to brain organoid cultures with more reproducible and human brain–representative glia-to-neuron ratios, which are urgently needed. Furthermore, to overcome certain iPS cell issues, such as loss of the cellular age signature, reproducibility, and teratoma formation, we will bypass the pluripotent state by performing the transdifferentiation of somatic cells into induced neuronal stem cells (iNSCs). The generation of iNSCs will be a critical step forward in advancing brain organoid technology for disease modeling, drug testing, and regenerative medicine applications. It will also enhance the speed, efficiency, and reproducibility of generating 3D human brain tissues.

Overall, the MPG-funded White-Paper Project will not only contribute to reducing the number of animal experiments in neuroscience and increasing the quality of the science but also pave the way to conducting personalized medicine and impacting transplantation medicine.

Further information

Brain development in the hammock: an organoid learns to think
Deutschlandfunk, Forschung aktuell – 08. May 2023
Interview by Michael Lange with Yotam Menuchin-Lasowski and Thomas Rauen (in German) more
Brain organoids - model systems of the human brain.Statement published by the German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina (2023)

Brain organoids - model systems of the human brain.
Statement published by the German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina (2023)

Scientists describe the possibilities of this field of research and discuss whether it should be more regulated for ethical or legal reasons.

Spokesperson of the Working Group:
  • Prof. Dr. Jürgen Knoblich, Institute of  Molecular Biotechnology (IMBA), Vienna, Austrian Academy of Sciences (Austria)
  • Prof. Dr. Hans Schöler, Max Planck Institute for Molecular Biomedicine
Do we still need animal research? (German)
Could organ-like tissue structures make the one or other animal experiments superfluous in the future? Where can researchers already do without animal research today and where not?
On the occasion of the International Day of the Laboratory Animal on April 24, 2022, the 3sat-magazine NANO broadcasted this item, which was created with the participation of the White Paper Project Group team.
Broadcast - in German - available until April 27, 2027 more
Photomontage with a close-up of an eye and magnified coronaviruses
In 'Forbes', one of the most successful American business magazines, William Haseltine reports about our study. more
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