Mini 3D brain cell models could accelerate future MS research

Mini 3D models that replicate parts of the human nervous system have been developed – and could eventually speed up drug research for neurological conditions, including multiple sclerosis (MS).

As part of a collaboration between the UK Dementia Research Institute and the MS Society Centre for MS Research, scientists at the University of Edinburgh’s Anne Rowling Regenerative Neurology Clinic and the Euan MacDonald Centre for Motor Neuron Disease Research worked on the models.

The tiny models which, according to the University, are just one millimetre-wide, were created using stem cells from human skin samples that were donated by volunteers. They will be used to study myelin, an ‘insulating substance’ that wraps around the axons of nerve cells, helping information to flow and enabling cell-to-cell communication.

It is hoped the models will aid the study of neurological diseases and drugs testing for conditions that are linked to myelin loss, such as MS.

After a reprogramming process, which led to the original skin cells being turned into spinal cord cells, they were grown into ‘3D structures of cell bundles’, also known as ‘organoids’. As per the University, this will allow researchers to watch myelin develop ‘spontaneously’ and compare how the substance functions in a healthy brain or spinal cord versus in someone with a gene mutation.

Ultimately, it could help scientists to test drugs in human cells before human trials – with researchers also hoping that using the models will make it easier to study the brain and nervous system ‘at the cellular level’. However, it could be some time before treatments tested via this model are available to patients.

Dr Owen Gwydion James, lead researcher at the Anne Rowling Clinic, said: “Demyelinating disorders have a profound effect on the quality of life for patients. Now we have the capability of studying human myelination experimentally, a major goal is to identify drugs that can promote myelination. We believe that this new approach could be a huge boost to the toolbox that allows us to do this effectively.”

Read the full study online through the Developmental Cell journal.