Unleashing the power of organoids: A journey from science fiction to reality

Douglas Johnson
December 13, 2023
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Picture this: miniature yet fully functional human organs flourishing within petri dishes. Like a captivating kaleidoscope, each model showcases a dizzying array of intricate structures bustling with activity.

I’m talking about organoids – miniature, three-dimensional bundles of cells that resemble an organ. They are a breathtaking, futuristic concept that holds the potential to change the face of medicine forever.

You might have seen the science fiction movie Repo Men (2010), a thriller about a dystopian society’s use of regenerative medicine to create artificial organs. In this film, artificial organs are grown and transplanted into people in need; at a cost. For those who fail to make their payments, the organs are repossessed. The main character eventually works to dismantle the heartless system.

This is an interesting movie, but hopefully not a future reality! However, the movie did highlight the regenerative power of cells. At that time, the idea of stem cells developing into organ-like models was inconceivable, but the capability of using cells’ regenerative properties knows no bounds.

In biomedical research, scientists and medical professionals constantly seek out innovative methods to investigate the mysteries of human health and disease. Among the most promising breakthroughs are organoids. By enabling scientists to study tissues and organs in lab settings, these organoids have opened new doors for disease or tissue modeling.

"While the idea of growing organs from a petri dish is in the distant future, the current miniature marvels of organoids provide a promising paradigm shift in improving healthcare and overall human well-being."

--Douglas Johnson

Organoids have revolutionized biomedical research, offering a more accurate and ethical alternative to traditional experimental models. The concept of organoids can be traced back to the groundbreaking work of Leroy Stevens, Ph.D., who, in 1959, generated organ-like structures in the laboratory called “organ rudiments”.

The term “organoids” gained prominence in the early 2010s. Hans Clevers, Ph.D. and his team at the Hubrecht Institute in Utrecht, Netherlands (2009) grew the first intestinal organoids, whereas Madeline Lancaster, Ph.D. and her team at the Institute of Molecular Biotechnology in Austria (2010) developed the first brain organoids resembling cerebral tissue.

The development of organoids has solved an important problem.

Human tissue samples are essential for biomedical research, but one of the great challenges involves the ability to obtain these samples to study complex diseases. Additionally, it’s necessary to conduct adequate investigation of treatments before moving into clinical trials. Organoids allow researchers to develop human disease models right in the lab using a few key ingredients: special cells called stem cells, capable of transforming and becoming different cell types in our body, a cocktail of growth factors, time and an incubator.

Among the diverse array of organoids being developed, two prominent examples are intestinal and brain organoids, each presenting unique opportunities for biomedical research and beyond.

Intestinal organoids, also known as "mini-guts," accurately mimic the structure and function of the human intestine. By culturing intestinal stem cells in a specialized environment, researchers can promote the development of complex structures resembling the inner lining of the intestine. These “mini-guts” offer an unparalleled platform to study intestinal diseases such as inflammatory bowel disease and colorectal cancer, and investigate the effects of different drugs on the intestine. Furthermore, because the organoids can be derived from an individual's own cells, intestinal organoids may facilitate personalized medicine by opening the door for tailored treatments and personalized drug screening.

On the other hand, brain organoids, often termed "mini-brains," provide an extraordinary means of studying the intricacies of the human brain without invasive procedures. These three-dimensional organoids recapitulate key features of the human brain, exhibiting neuronal networks, synaptic connections and even rudimentary brain waves. Brain organoids hold immense potential for understanding neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism and schizophrenia, as well as neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson's disease.

These marvelous model systems are being used at MUSC. Research labs including Jorge Munera, Ph.D., Mindy Engevik, Ph.D. and Amy Engevik, Ph.D. use human intestinal organoids to study intestinal disease. Additionally, the lab of Stefano Berto, Ph.D. uses brain organoids to study evolutionary genomics from humans and non-human primates. MUSC also has the renowned Regenerative Medicine Cell Models Core, directed by Stephen Duncan, D.Phil., which aids investigators in obtaining organoids to study digestive and liver diseases.

"Organoids have emerged as a thrilling frontier in biomedical research, offering remarkable opportunities for disease modeling and advancing the realm of patient care."

-- Douglas Johnson

The future of organoid research is nothing short of exhilarating. As technology advances, organoids will become increasingly reproducible, complex and highly tailored to specific organ functions. This paves the way for personalized medicine, where treatments can be customized based on an individual’s unique physiology.

In time, scientists envision developing entire "organoid biobanks," repositories of organoids derived from a diverse range of patients, that could help researchers to better understand the full spectrum of human variation in health and disease. These biobanks could serve as crucial resources for testing potential treatments on organoids representing different patient populations, ultimately increasing treatment efficacy and reducing adverse reactions.

Furthermore, organoid technology could revolutionize transplant medicine. Through using a patient's own cells, scientists aim to generate organoids that closely resemble their organs. By accurately modeling an individual's organ, researchers may be able to predict organ rejection risks, test the efficacy of immunosuppressive drugs and offer personalized transplantation strategies with enhanced chances of success.

Organoids have emerged as a thrilling frontier in biomedical research, offering remarkable opportunities for disease modeling and advancing the realm of patient care. Though there are now an abundance of organoid types, the exploration of intestinal and brain organoids specifically has shed light on diseases affecting these vital organs, offering insights into novel treatment approaches and personalized medicine.

As science fiction and reality continue to intertwine, organoids represent a bridge between the imaginative possibilities of the future and the current realities of biomedical research. While the idea of growing organs from a petri dish is in the distant future, the current miniature marvels of organoids provide a promising paradigm shift in improving healthcare and overall human well-being.