Utrecht University and UMC Utrecht open MIND Facility
New Dutch lab facilitates research using 3D brain tissue grown from stem cells
On Friday 2 June, Utrecht University and University Medical Center Utrecht will open the MIND Facility, an innovative research centre clustering the world's foremost expertise in the field of neurological research. Here, the most advanced stem cell technology and microscopy will open the way to a better understanding of the origins and development of the human brain, as well as developmental disorders.
Working together, we'll be able to unravel how the immature brain develops, and in the case of disorders discover what goes wrong.
In the MIND Facility, researchers will study the brain using pieces of 3D brain tissue grown from human stem cells, known as organoids. “Using lab-based techniques we can derive stem cells from ordinary hair, blood or skin cells, which can then be developed into all kinds of tissues by placing the stem cells in conditions resembling their natural environment”, explains Jeroen Pasterkamp, professor of Translational Neurosciences and director of the MIND Facility. “We mimic in the lab what takes place in the brain during embryonic development. The cells then start building 3D brain tissue, enabling us to study the development.” These tissues comprise only sections of the brain, and in no way replicate the real thing. However, 'it is a fantastic tool for answering all kinds of questions about how the brain and brain cells function', says Pasterkamp.
Integrating disciplines to study developmental disorders
The MIND Facility aspires to attract researchers from a wide range of disciplines. Pasterkamp: 'Working together, we'll be able to unravel how the immature brain develops, and in the case of disorders discover what goes wrong. To that end, we want to reproduce and study brain areas in the lab that are important for normal childhood development, as well as areas that are involved in developmental and other disorders.' By comparing the stem cells of healthy children and children with a developmental disorder, scientists will be able to pinpoint at a cellular level where aberrations arise. 'We can genetically modify stem cells before they begin forming into tissue, enabling us to introduce a mutation that is common among people with autism spectrum disorder, for example.
Innovative imaging technique to explore the brain in 3D
Unlike two-dimensional tissue samples, organoids cannot be placed on a Petri dish and studied under a microscope. UU and UMC Utrecht have therefore invested in an innovative technology called light sheet microscopy, in order to create 3D images of brain tissue in the lab. Pasterkamp: 'This allows us to see the precise composition of sections of the brain, including which types of cells are found there.'
The ambition of the MIND Facility is to become one of the world's leading brain organoid labs. 'We have two light sheet microscopes that are available to anyone interested in conducting scientific research experiments on human brain tissue.' In the future, organoids may partly replace the use of animal models in the lab.
Within Utrecht University’s strategic research theme Dynamics of Youth, Jeroen Pasterkamp is now developing a new interdisciplinary research project on early brain development: The first 1001 critical days of a child’s life.