Human Brain Research At Aston Uni
Many supporters of the Trust may have seen articles published recently in the national press which talk about some very remarkable findings linked to the use of human stem cells and the creation of ‘micro brains’ involving ‘3-D printing’ of tissue and ambitious claims such as ‘we can replace parts of the brain that have been damaged by, for example, dementia.’ These statements are very bold and in many ways might give those suffering from the various conditions related to dementia, as well as their carers and families, great hope for the future. However, as with many stories that appear in the national press, there is some truth, but also significant exaggeration.
The ‘truth’ side first: in the early 2000’s I was very interested in designing human-based cell systems that could be used for testing new drugs and treatments for the brain. As you probably know, many animal models were then, as now, used in testing drugs and in basic research on how the mammalian central nervous system operated, as well as work on degenerative diseases of the brain. I believed then as I do now, that animal models would never serve as faithful representations of the human brain and in my reading I found in the scientific literature reference to some very early human stem cells, which were rather basic, but they had been studied with the idea that they could be inserted into the human brain to repair it if it was damaged. Indeed, some work had already been done in the USA in 1998, where these cells had been inserted into a patient’s brain. The result was, well, nothing happened to the patient, either good or ill. It was assumed that the cells would somehow ‘repair’ the brain after a stroke, for example. The cells did not cause a problem, but they certainly did not repair the brain. So, that was the ‘truth’ and exaggeration part dealt with at the same time. At the moment, we simply do not know enough about the basic components of the brain and how they operate, process and store information to repair them or replace them. Indeed, those early experiments in the 1990s where, in retrospect, rather like if somebody lost some data on a memory stick, or a CD, then they decided to insert another brand new memory stick and expect the data to somehow be there. So, as the Good Book tells us, ‘there is nothing new under the sun’.
By the time I became interested in these basic stem cells in early 2000s, the idea of replacing cells in the brain had been shelved. I approached the Trust for support to use these stem cells to design a system which would be a good model for the human brain, which could be used for testing drugs and toxins. The Trust funded my group for a decade and with that help, we built an experimental stem-cell based platform, which taught us all the techniques necessary to make a good human model of the most basic aspects of the human brain function. As a result of the expertise gained from the support of the Trust, we were able to gain funding from many other sources, including the European Union. This latter project which was mentioned in the newspaper articles was basically the descendent of our fundamental studies supported by the Trust. Indeed, we are also currently using the next generation of human stem cells to evolve a model of human drug-induced epilepsy, as well as understanding the basis of Alzheimer’s disease.
So, at the moment, we are very interested in looking at several aspects of the function of the brain at the most basic level. However, it is important to see that we are in effect studying the simplest component of how the brain functions. So it is rather like studying a microchip to understand how a TV, washing machine, iPhone or any other electrical appliance operates. If you look inside any appliance, you will see hundreds of microchips and the brain is almost infinitely more complex. Today we are at the stage where we are trying to understand a city the size of a hundred Londons by studying a corner of a tiny flat. Sometimes, the sheer scale of the task of understanding even the most primitive and basic functions of the brain can be dispiriting, but there are grounds for hope. I remember talking to a GP years ago about a muscle problem in my arm and how it was taking forever to heal. He said it will be gradual, but one day I would realise that I had not felt or thought about the problem for days or weeks, as it had resolved itself without me even noticing. Similarly, you might note that the articles in the newspapers did not mention animal studies or any competing animal studies relevant to this area, of brain repair and study. The articles just focused on the human stem cells. If you think about it, this is remarkable. No animal model was mentioned in the same breath as the human stem cells. The paper just didn’t mention the animal approach at all, indeed, why would they?
Whilst the claims in those articles were exaggerated and we cannot simply repair the human brain at the moment, like it was a car or a washing machine, the models being used to move in that direction are now established as human and not animal. Those living with neurodegenerative diseases now have human models to invest their hopes in, albeit for the distant future, where their children and grandchildren will not suffer as they have suffered. This has been achieved by the Trust supporting our work for many years and that of others and whilst much remains to be done in the replacement of animal research, there are some areas now, where the issue has been actually resolved and replacement has been achieved.
Perhaps a decade or two ago, I remember in my hearing replacement of animal models being openly derided by individuals from powerful and influential organisations. Now? At least one aspect of the vision of the founders of the Trust has already been achieved. Replacement is possible and it has been accomplished by the Trust and the scientists it has funded. It seems that sometimes a famous victory can be achieved without actually realising it has even happened.