How lab-grown ‘mini-brains’ could reveal the inner workings of dementia — and point to a cure

How lab-grown ‘mini-brains’ could reveal the inner workings of dementia — and point to a cure

Using 3D bioprinting technology, UBC researchers are working to grow tissue models of patients’ own brains. Their work could revolutionize Alzheimer’s treatments.

Dr. Haakon Nygaard

Over the past 20 years, Alzheimer’s researchers have conducted more than 200 clinical trials of promising candidate therapies, with little success. An effective treatment for the devastating neurodegenerative disease remains elusive.

“It’s relentless: The memory loss, the changes in everyday function, the anxiety and depression. I see the impact on my patients and their families every day,” says UBC’s Dr. Haakon Nygaard, the Fipke Professor in Alzheimer’s Research and director of the UBC Hospital Clinic for Alzheimer Disease and Related Disorders.

Extraordinary new approaches could change this.

Using stem cell technology and next generation neuro-imaging, Dr. Nygaard and Dr. Brian MacVicar have launched a project that explores an important new frontier in Alzheimer’s research: the role of oxidative stress in brain nerve cell death.

Dr. Brian MacVicar

“Understanding the specific processes that trigger oxidative stress is key to developing successful targeted therapies for people with Alzheimer’s,” explains Dr. MacVicar, a UBC professor of psychiatry and the Canada Research Chair in Neuroscience.

For the study, Dr. Nygaard and his team derive stem cells from the blood of Alzheimer’s patients and, with the help of a state-of-the-art 3D bioprinter, grow tissue models of the patients’ own brains. These processes are then visualized using techniques developed by Dr. MacVicar, with ongoing work to translate the findings into patients through the powerful new Charles E. Fipke Integrated Neuroimaging Suite at UBC’s Djavad Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health. The facility houses Canada’s only simultaneous positron emission tomography and magnetic imaging (PET-MRI) machine dedicated solely to brain-related research.

“Because the cells are derived directly from patients, they also respond in ways that are directly relevant to the brain function of patients,” Dr. MacVicar says.

Dr. Nygaard adds: “Being able to grow and study these ‘little brains’ in three-dimensional space gives us an unprecedented opportunity to explore the fundamental mechanisms at work in the disease’s progression. The potential is incredible.”

The two scientists are optimistic that their work will uncover new pathways for drugs that could one day slow or even prevent Alzheimer’s disease.

“Once we have modelled the progression of Alzheimer’s in many different patients, the data should yield valuable new insights into how, ultimately, we can reduce oxidative stress and protect brain nerve cells,” Dr. Nygaard says.