Advancing toward a brain on a chip: addressing the need to find therapeutics that work

Steven Loeb · June 26, 2024 · Short URL:

The webinar included representatives from ACRO Biosystems, Bristol Myers Squibb, and eNuvio

The human brain. It is the most complicated part of the human body. As the control center, this organ is the source of every thought and movement. It consists of more than 89 billion neurons and sends between 10 and 100 signals every second to parts of the body.

Replicating the brain has been a goal for many neuroscientists for decades. It’s become more imperative as the population ages and neurodegenerative diseases increase. There will be 80 million people over 65 years old in 15 years, or by 2040, twice as many as in 2000. As it happens, the number of people with some sort of brain disorder will rise. It’s estimated that the number of people with dementia will triple by 2050. There is currently no cure for dementia.

Advances in stem cell understanding and supporting technologies have helped to recreate the brain in vitro (in petri dishes). But getting that environment just right is a long process. Getting to that brain-on-a-chip may never be achieved in our lifetimes. But we’re getting closer and closer, which means we’re making progress toward replicating dementia and other brain disorders to find the right compound that can aid in recovery.

How are scientists and innovators addressing the need to find therapeutics that work? We’ll talk to innovators and influencers in the biotech ecosystem, specifically those working on in vitro technologies, precision medicine and/or neurodegenerative diseases. We hope this webinar will give insights into how scientists are improving disease models to understand the curing or treating of neurological diseases, such as Alzheimer’s, ALS and other degenerative brain disorders. We’ll also explore how pharmaceutical giants are making inroads into brain therapeutic discoveries. How all this is getting paid for and what tech advancements have been made and are being made to expedite therapeutic discovery.

The panel was moderated by Vator founder and CEO Bambi Francisco Roizen, and included: Jags Vazirani, former Executive Director Development and Commercial Alliances at Bristol Myers Squibb; Rosanna Zhang, Head of Corp Development at ACRO Biosystems; Mark Aurousseau, co-founder of eNuvio

Highlights from the webinar: 

1:22, panelists introductions: each panelists discusss their backgrounds and expertise in the biotech space.

6:21, the evolution of drug discovery and the breakthrough technologies: Aurousseau mentions iPSCs (induced pluripotent stem cells) IPSC technology, or the ability to reprogram any cell back into its stem cell form. That's powerful because, in this space, prior to that, you couldn't really reprogram or you couldn't access any kind of tissue samples or primary in humans.

Zhang says that iPSCs allowed scientists to go from viewing things at a 2D level to a 3D level, allowing a greater understanding of brain organoids at different kind of stages of maturity. It also allows for building different disease models on top of those brain organoids, so scientists can create Alzheimer's or Parkinson's disease state, and that really enables a better kind of drug screenings.

12:41, the importance of mapping out the human brain: Zhang says we've mapped out a lot of the neural networks already. In terms of its relevancy towards developing new therapeutic options, a lot of biotech companies are asking how they can tell whether Alzheimer's disease gets treated, so then they can look at the protein aggregation, for example.

Aurousseau notes that our understanding of how the brain works is quite poor, and so the goal of a brain on a chip may not be necessarily to have the entire brain on a chip, because it's so complex, and you'd be inundated with everything going on at the same time, even if you could model all of that dish. So, the idea of breaking it up more into neural networks, or individual systems, within that brand is much more attractive and arguably more manageable from a scientific level in order to get the result that you're interested in.

18:43, advances in understanding how cells become more cancerous: Vazirani mentioned that, 15 years ago, chemotherapy was your only option until immuno oncology (IO) treatments came along, which is more about having your body fight the cancer inside and stimulating your immune system to fight the cancer cells naturally. The next iteration of that came about with how to narrow it down and make it personalized medicine. So, they drill down on the biomarkers, trying to understand which biomarkers affect which tumor types, and how the medication would either boost immune or kill the T cells or the cancer cells. So, there is a lot of evolution that has happened, which the neuroscience field can learn from.

36:25, using microfluidics to reproduce organoids: Aurousseau talks about eNuvio produces dishes or vessels, which tools can be put in, such that an assay can be developed, which offers a more advanced interpretation ability of the system. You might start with something low down, which will identify certain interesting molecules or interactions, and then if you wanted to pursue those you would have to move forward into using cell based models and then further organoids, to figure out exactly what's going on if it really is of interest. What eNuvio does is create the environments for that to happen.

Zhang also talked about finding the right microfluidic devices to grow their organoids.

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