NIH Trailblazer Awardee Develops Technology to Accelerate Organoid Development

Assistant professor Xueju “Sophie” Wang is developing a series of devices to improve the utility of brain organoids for modeling diseases and testing new drugs

When scientists are testing new drug treatments or trying to model a disease, they typically rely on human tissue samples, regardless of the type of tissue they are targeting. This method can be expensive, and samples are often difficult to obtain.

The development of a new technology called organoids offers a promising way to address these challenges.

Organoids are models of various human tissues that allow scientists to test new treatments without using real human tissue samples. Organoids are grown in the laboratory from stem cells and produce miniature models of the human brain, heart or other organs and tissues.

However, the use of these organoids has been severely limited by the fact that they are much less complex than our actual tissues in terms of structure and function. They also face problems that grow and develop beyond a certain point, as scientists are unable to effectively deliver nutrients and oxygen to the cells at the core of the organoid.

Assistant professor Xueju “Sophie” Wang of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering has received a US$643,591 Trailblazer Award from the National Institutes of Health to work with co-researchers Yi Zhang, assistant professor at the department, to develop innovative engineering solutions for developing these limitations for Biomedical Engineering and Yan Li of Florida State University.

Wang will develop and evaluate two technologies through this grant. The first is a 3-D electronic network that will stimulate the organoid and allow researchers to monitor it in 3-D. Currently, scientists typically assess the organoids in two dimensions, meaning understanding their 3D function is difficult.

The device will allow scientists to monitor the organoid’s microenvironment, including temperature, oxygen levels and optogenetics, which control the activity of neurons with light.

The device will also use electrical pulses to stimulate the organoid to allow it to develop more complexity as the cells differentiate during the growth process.

The brain organoids Wang will be working with look like clumpy clumps of cells about the size of a pea. A more complex brain organoid will have more layers than scientists have been able to achieve so far.

Wang will implant her tiny device in a brain organoid from the beginning of its development to observe how it interacts with the organoid.

Second, Wang will develop a microvascular system that mimics the function of human blood vessels. This allows scientists to provide the oxygen and nutrients the organoid needs to grow and develop.

“We look forward to seeing what the interaction will look like because this is one of the first studies in this field to see how electronics and microfluidics interact with biological tissues,” says Wang.

Wang will send the mini organoid device to Li for evaluation. Li is an expert in brain organoid development and will help Wang evaluate the effectiveness of her devices.

While Wang will focus on brain organoids, her technologies could be applied to other organoids as well.

“We hope that we can develop these intricate organoids that represent or resemble the real human organs so that we can use them, for example, for drug screening or disease model development without using real human specimens,” says Wang.

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