Project funded to print “mini-brains” for drug screening

alt="Closeup of a 3D printer in a lab that is dispensing blue bioink from a nozzle onto a petri dish."
Highly specialized 3D printers, like this one in Willerth’s lab, can “bioprint” organic materials to mimic the cells, structure and function of human tissues, such as the brain.

2021 August – A UVic-led research team has received funding that will enable it to 3D print miniature human brains to help identify effective drugs for the treatment of Alzheimer’s Disease.

The group will 3D-print brain “organoids” – tiny three-dimensional tissue cultures using stem cells from patients suffering from Alzheimer’s. These mini-brains will be used in pre-clinical testing to help predict the effectiveness and toxicity of various drugs, significantly lowering the chance of drug failure during clinical trials, reducing the cost of drug development and decreasing the healthcare burden generated by diseases such as Alzheimer’s.

The project, led by Stephanie Willerth – a professor in UVic’s Biomedical Engineering Program – will receive a total of $489,600 over four years from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR).

“The project will produce functional 3D neural tissue from human stem cells, which can be used to discover potential cures for neurological diseases and disorders, such as Alzheimer’s,” said Willerth, an internationally recognized neural tissue engineer and Canada Research Chair in Biomedical Engineering.

“These tissues will mimic the cells, structures and functions found in the human brain, providing in vitro models that can be used for screening potential drugs for neurological disorders.”

Along with Willerth, the team includes: Dr. Hakkon Nygaard, an MD and PhD who runs the Alzheimer’s clinic at the University of British Columbia (cells used in the project are derived from patients he sees at his clinic); Katherine Elvira, a Canada Reseach Chair and Michael Smith Scholar at UVic Chemistry; Aspect Biosystems, a Vancouver-based biotechnology company; and Axolotl Biosciences, a recent UVic spin-off led by Willerth.

The project will use Aspect Biosystems’ cutting-edge 3D-printing technology in combination with Axolotl’s novel bioinks to generate the miniature brains, validate these neural organoids as a tool for drug screening, and then evaluate potential drugs by examining their effect on the functioning of these engineered tissues.

As the frequency of Alzheimer’s Disease and other types of dementia soar, drug development for these conditions remains a major challenge. According to the research team’s application, since 2000, about 244 compounds have been tested in 413 clinical trials, with only one or two drugs approved for dementia in this period. While the causes of this failure are numerous and diverse, a fundamental need exists for better pre-clinical tools for predicting the effectiveness and toxicity of drug targets. Using patient derived stem cells in combination with bioprinting enables the generation of personalized tissue models for diseases like Alzheimer’s disease.

2021Aug18 AT