The Developmental and Cellular Biology group at the LCSB is part of the CONNECT project (Connecting neural networks: Nervous-system-on-Chip Technology) which has just received the support of the EU through a grant of almost €7 million. It brings together expertise from seven partners to develop a new type of organs-on-a-chip. “This project offers a unique opportunity to culture individual nervous system components and connect them in a single smart microfluidic chip,” details Prof. Jens Schwamborn, head of the research group at the LCSB. “It could pave the way for future development of therapeutic strategies.” The project was launched last week with a kick-off meeting in Eindhoven.
Ingenious system to mimic the nervous system
Organs-on-a-chip (OoC) is a relatively new area of research. In practical terms, an OoC is a case with tubes, called microfluidic channels, in which experiments can be done on living cells. Well-known examples of OoCs are liver-on-a-chip and heart-on-a-chip. As two OoCs are very similar, such in vitro experiments are easy to repeat. The hope is that with a complete understanding of an organ, researchers will be able to produce a perfectly functioning OoC, on which new drugs can be tested on a large scale.
Eindhoven University of Technology (TU/e) is leading this new research consortium aiming at developing a nervous-system-on-a-chip (NoC), which could be used, for example, to test new drugs against Parkinson’s disease. It could also help reduce the number of animal experiments, bringing both ethical and practical benefits. The idea is to use an ingenious system of microtubes to connect nerve cells to each other through three compartments ranging from the central nervous system to the peripheral nervous system. It would allow to study the transport of specific proteins that travel in the nervous system and are associated with Parkinson’s disease.
Interdiscplinary and international collaboration
The CONNECT consortium brings together seven research institutions and many different research disciplines including nanofabrication, microfluidics, stem cell technology, tissue engineering and advanced imaging. The University of Sheffield is in charge of the biological development of the relevant type of nerve cells, KU Leuven specialised in the optical analysis of nerve cells and Erasmus MC in electrophysiological analysis. AALTO University helps with the choice of materials and electrodes for the NoC while the Oxford Parkinson Disease Center has a bio-bank with cells from Parkinson’s patients for testing. The TU/e researchers will take care of the design and realisation of the NoC.
The researchers of the Developmental and Cellular Biology group at the LCSB bring their expertise on brain organoids: they are able to grow neurons in a 3D cell culture environment, which mimic specific areas of the human brain well. The team will contribute the brain organoids to the NoC, including patient specific ones derived from Parkinson’s patients induced pluripotent stem cells. “Gemma Gomez Giro, who has been working on neurodegenerative diseases and brain organoids during her PhD, will be the main contact for this project” explains Jens Schwamborn. “She will also focus on phenotyping the organoids and on optimising the connection between the neurons from the different compartments.”
Brain organoids in a well plate
A step towards personalised medicine
During the first stages, the cells in the NoC will come from existing bio-bank material, but in the future, the organoids cultivated at the LCSB from Parkinson’s patients induced pluripotent stem cells will be available. If the different phases are successful, the nervous-system-on-a-chip will open the door to personalised medication. The development of new medicines could also be drastically accelerated. This is desperately needed, given that an average drug has a development time of 10 to 12 years and costs about 1.6 billion euros.