When the success of cloning became public in the final years of the last century, the ethical debates it sparked seemed endless. Now, scientists from the University of Pennsylvania have created minibrains in cylindrical tubes, once again igniting the debate about the moral limitations of science.
The ethics of the minibrain
Scientists spin out stem cells and store them in spheres. Once a few nudges are given, these stem cells start developing into minibrains, with neuron growth resembling that of the brain development of an infant in a woman’s womb.
The process offers an in-depth way to study the mysteries of the brain. For instance, scientists can now create minibrains from epileptic and autistic people to study how such conditions develop and continue. This would allow researchers to discover solutions to various medical problems faced by human beings. But the development of minibrains also raises a set of ethical questions.
“People are more worried about if they reach a certain level — if it’s really like a human brain. We’re not there; we’re very far from there. But the question people ask is: ‘Do they have consciousness?’ The biggest problem I have so far is I think, as a field, we don’t know: What is consciousness? What is pain?” The Washington Post quotes Hongjun Song, leader of the laboratory that developed the minibrain.
Scientists from the Salk Institute in Los Angeles, California, recently found that they could transplant the human minibrain into a mouse and it would start developing blood vessels. While this allows for further exploration into human-to-human and human-to-animal brain transplants, it also opens up a Pandora’s Box of uncertainty that many are afraid to look into.
“How comfortable are we with certain kinds of hybrids we’re creating, and does that change the way we regard those animals or the kinds of protections that should be afforded to them?” asks a researcher in an interview with NPR.
Minibrain projects worldwide
Research labs from other countries have also developed minibrains for various purposes. In Vienna, scientists from the Institute of Molecular Biotechnology of the Austrian Academy of Sciences have also grown minibrains that help them to model cancers, like glioblastoma.
These can be used in various preclinical testing to determine how effective certain medications are. “As a next step, it will be important to foster clinical partnerships, so we can work towards translating our findings from the bench to the bedside,” Labiotech quotes Jürgen Knoblich, leader of the research team.
In Israel, another group of researchers from the Weizmann Institute of Science is creating minibrains that wrinkle the same way the normal human brain does. The team expects to study the minibrains so as to find an effective treatment for the thousands of babies who are born with smooth brains and who suffer as a result.
The Israeli researchers discovered that the regular brain cells were almost twice as stiff as the minibrain they had engineered from babies with the smooth brain syndrome. “We now have a much better understanding of what makes a brain wrinkled or, in cases of those with one mutated gene, smooth,” says a researcher in an interview with The Times of Israel.
The team hopes that their study will help in unraveling the secrets of disorders like epilepsy, microcephaly, and schizophrenia. And together with other teams across the world that are involved in studying minibrains for various purposes, several medical breakthroughs are expected in the coming decades despite such research remaining under the shadow of unresolved ethical questions.