How growing human organs in a lab could be a boon to research

Researcher holding culture dish

It sounds like something out of a sci-fi movie — human organs, grown in a lab. But it’s real. In fact, it’s been going on for years, and you can learn all about them at a lecture put on by the UO’s Developmental Biology Program on Sunday, June 25.

As of now, lab-grown human organs, or organoids, are purely for research and not for use in actual humans, but they have given researchers the opportunity to study diseases in ways that were previously impossible, without worrying about causing anyone harm.

“The key thing with lab-grown human organs that is really revolutionary is that not only can we use them to model different diseases in human tissue in a 3-D culture, but also, in the last five years, they invented cerebral organoids, which are brain organoids that mimic human brain development,” said Luis Sullivan, a graduate student in the program and one of the event’s organizers. “The speaker we invited is the inventor of cerebral organoids.”

His name is Jürgen Knoblich. In his lab at the Institute of Molecular Biotechnology in Vienna, researchers study neurological diseases like autism or microcephaly, so having a biologically accurate model of a human brain is invaluable.

“They discovered a way to take human skin cells and reverse engineer them into stem cells, which you can then turn into basically any cell type you want,” said Brandon Mark, another student in the Developmental Biology Program. “You can take skin cells from someone with a neurological disorder and grow a cerebral organoid with their own cells to look at what genetic contributions there could be to their disease.”

Knoblich’s lecture, which is free and open to the public, will be held at 6 p.m. in the Giustina Ballroom of the Ford Alumni Center. More information can be found online.

A major theme of the talk will be the ethical issues surrounding the use of cerebral organoids, specifically whether or not the organoid has consciousness. And according to an interview with the inventor, it absolutely does not — growing up independent of all sensory cues, it’s essentially just a 3-D culture. 

One of the reasons the organizers chose to focus on lab-grown human organs is the Phil and Penny Knight Campus for Accelerating Scientific Impact, which will give UO scientists the more chances to work with organoids.

“We can’t do bench-to-bedside research at the UO because there’s no hospital here, but organoids are an excellent translational pinpoint,” Sullivan said. “So we’re hoping in the future to hire more organoid researchers.”