What exactly is a mini brain? Why are you developing them?
A mini-brain is just that - a mini model of the human brain. It measures up to 4 mm and is made up of different cell types just like in a real brain – neurons, glial cells, astrocytes. Mini brains provide the closest possible model to patient’s brains, which gives us more accurate results than using a mouse model for example. Also for obvious reasons we cannot conduct this work on people’s brains. The mini-brains offer the most precise and innovative approach to investigate disease mechanisms and accelerate discovery of new therapeutics. At The Neuro, we use mini brains to study neurodegenerative disorders such as Parkinson’s, ALS as well as neurodevelopmental disorders such as microencephaly.
How do you make mini brains?
We take cells from the blood of patients, then re-program these cells into stem cells, and then subsequently, re-program them into specific nerve types to build the mini brains, such as cortical neurons, dopaminergic neurons, or motor neurons. It’s a collaborative effort by our team of scientists in The Neuro’s drug discovery platform. I focus on developing mid-brain mini brains, as the mid-brain is affected in Parkinson’s disease.
Mini brains were actually initially an accidental discovery. In 2013 Madeleine Lancaster accidentally forgot stem cells in the incubator. When she came back after a few weeks she saw that they had started to clump into 3D cultures.
You also run two successful bakeries in addition to being a neuroscientist – what do you do in your “down time”?
I really enjoy playing competitive rugby and flying planes. My father is an aeronautical engineer, so maybe I inherited some of that passion from him. I have memories of making and playing with electrical cars with him when I was six years old. That’s the reason I went into neuroscience because it’s a mix between cell biology and engineering.
What motivates you to excel in so many different domains?
I never thought I would excel in any of these domains. However, I do always try the things that interest or attract me. For me, that’s something very important – to always follow my sense of curiosity and to always try whatever you are interested in or for which you have passion. That is what has involved me in different activities all my life in parallel to my studies and my work.
For the first two years of my Bachelor’s I was not focused at all. Looking back I realize it’s because nothing interested me. However, when I came across neuroscience – that is when everything changed. I am totally fascinated by the brain – this organ that defines who you are.