Brain in box created by Melbourne researchers to grow cells to test medications

Melbourne researchers have grown a “brain in a box” — a 3D network of connected neurons made from a patient’s cells — that will be used to test medications for brain disorders so the best drug and dose can be found.

The breakthrough technology will first be tested on ­patients with epilepsy, with the aim of delivering a personalised treatment plan in just one month to replace the years — and sometimes a lifetime — of trial-and-error medication combinations.

St Vincent’s Hospital ­researchers have successfully transformed animal stem cells into neurons that connect and behave like those in the brain, and are using human cells for the first time to grow the “brain” in a 3D scaffold.

Professor Mark Cook, chair of medicine and director of neurology at St Vincent’s, said side effects from anti-epileptic medications could be significant, and each patient responded differently to treatment. “When I give patients a new medication, I tell them it’s like going to a restaurant and asking the waiter what the best meal is,” he said.

“He can make some good guesses and tell you what everybody else likes and what he likes, but he can’t tell you what you like.

“Side effects are the biggest problem, but we hope this system can answer those individual questions.”

University of Melbourne biomedical engineer Dr Justin Bourke said while neurons could be grown as a flat 2D sheet and their electrical ­activity tested, growing neurons in a 3D space was a more ­realistic representation of ­activity in the brain.

“The brain has a very complex layer and structure, and growing them in 3D is a step towards making the more complex connections that mimic other brain disorders down the track,” he said.

“At later stages we could look at disorders such as schizophrenia. It should revolutionise the way clinicians treat patients.”

The design — including the 3D scaffold and the electrodes that will stimulate artificial seizures in the “brains” and record electrical activity to test if drugs are working — was created through the ARC Centre of Excellence for Electromaterials Science, which includes the University of Wollongong.

Simone Goudie, 34, has tried about 10 medications to control her seizures since being diagnosed with epilepsy at age 12. Some made her gain weight, others made her lose weight and the four medications she takes now cause tiredness and depression.

A cell model that could uncover what combination of medications could quell her seizures would give her back her independence.

“As it is, I can’t drive, I have to walk my dog with a family member. My parents pick me up from the station after work,” Ms Goudie said.

“To have my seizures under control would mean I could do normal things like feeling safe walking by myself in my neighbourhood.”

Brigid O’Connell, Health reporter, Herald Sun