February 18, 2019

Can Lab-Grown Human Brains Think?

“It has been 200 years since Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was published, and while scientists still haven’t figured out how to create a walking, talking complex life in a lab, they may be getting closer.

A growing number of researchers are mastering the creation of organoids: simplified, miniature versions of real human organs. These structures aren’t being harvested to make Frankenstein’s monster. Instead, they’re helping develop new drugs, and they are forcing the medical establishment to seriously consider the ethics of lab-grown life.

Developing pharmaceuticals is typically an expensive and risky process. Roughly 90 percent of drugs that make it to human trials are never submitted to the FDA for approval because they’re found to be unsafe or ineffective. Most estimates place the cost of developing a new drug at somewhere around $3 billion. Organoids, which are grown from human stem cells, may be able to remove some of the guesswork in patient trials.

“Researchers have gotten really good at curing diseases in mice, but unfortunately animal studies don’t really translate to human bodies,” says Kevin Costa, chief scientific officer at Novoheart, a stem cell biotechnology firm known for creating heart organoids. “There are differences in how cardiac muscle cells behave in rodents versus primates and humans. Consequently, one of the main reasons that drugs fail in clinical trials is because of cardiotoxicity, problems related to heart function.””

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