Did you ever see the classic sci-fi movie, Fantastic Voyage?
In it, the heroes travel inside of the human body in a craft, observing all kinds of awesome biology in an up close and personal kind of way on route into the brain with the goal to do microsurgery of a sorts.
Even though this movie came out a year before I was born, I saw it later as a kid and found it captivating.
“What if we could travel inside the body or even inside organs?” I thought back then. It seemed like we could learn amazing things first hand.
A new technology called organoids or mini-organs kind of makes this possible today.
In fact, organoids are extra exciting because this technology allows us to make miniature version of organs and then do science on them. The organoids can be differentiated and grown, depending on the type you want to make, from pluripotent or adult stem cells or other sources of tissue.
Even though we cannot literally climb inside to take a look, we can do the next best thing using histology and advanced microscopy even on “living” organoids. In a great piece of science writing, Cassandra Willyard, talks us through all the various new kinds of human organoids: liver, kidney, brain, pancreas, stomach, lung, breast, and the list goes on including “guts” as per the quote from Hans Clevers at right from Willyard’s article. I love this quote.
If we could shrink ourselves down and literally climb inside a human organoid, what would we see? What amazing things might we report on from this voyage?
In mini-brains we’d see neurons, synapses, glia, oligodendrocytes, and fiber tracts. We even might be witness to electrical activity in this mini-brain that represents actual rudimentary thought of a kind. Imagine seeing that “in person” from the inside.
In a mini-kidney or liver organoid, we might see all different kinds of cellular and tissue activities. If we dropped the equivalent of a micro bottle of vodka or tiny firecracker inside as a model of injury, we might see the organs kick into action to repair themselves.
In a breast organoid we might see milk production from the inside or the first signs of breast cancer formation. In a mini-lung, we could possibly see lung cancer germinate too or hike around inside airways such as bronchi, bronchioles, and alveoli. A bio-spelunker.
Exploring inside a heart organoid you could feel what it is like to be inside of something very similar to a beating heart. Would you like the rhythm and beat or feel like there’s a constant earthquake?
Inside the organoids in the lab you don’t have to worry about some nasty immune cell trying to knock you off either.
Some of the labs focusing on organoid research have discovered important things about normal human development and disease from this work. The researchers include teams from the labs of Drs. Hans Clevers, Jürgen Knoblich, Melissa Little, Takanori Takebe, and a growing number of others. The late Yoshiki Sasai did pioneering work in this area as well.
The postdocs and other trainees in these labs have done work that has changed our visions of what is possible in stem and developmental biology in a dish. For instance, Dr. Madeline Lancaster’s work on mini-brains has opened a lot of minds to all that is possible in brain neuroscience in a dish (see images above of a mini-brain and of Dr. Lancaster at right).
An organoid is not just a model system either, but also might have therapeutic potential. Tissues grown in 3-D that take on the form and function of real human organs even if in miniature form could form the basis of innovative therapies in the future as well.
I would say that so far in 2015 organoids are the most exciting development and some have argued they are most important new thing in the stem cell and developmental biology fields.
For past posts on this blog highlighting organoids you can read here.