This Wired article talks about tiny balls of mouse brain cells complete with blood vessels connected to a “microfluidic” chip that essentially acts as a heart.
In the last five years, researchers have engineered lots of dish-dwelling micro-organs, from itsy bitsy intestines to Lilliputian livers. They’ve simultaneously made major advances in biochips: small, Flash-drive-sized structures lined with a layer or two of cells and studded with biosensors and microfluidic channels. Those two-dimensional chips are useful for testing, say, how lung cells react to a piped-in toxin, but they’re too simplistic to truly mimic organs. That’s where organoids like Hoffman-Kim’s brain balls come in. For the first time, 2-D biochips are colliding with 3-D mini-organs—and together they’re making some of the best organ simulations ever.
Using these mashups, the idea is that scientists will be able to take a few of your skin cells, grow miniature versions of all your major organs, and put them on a chip. Then doctors can test out the best compounds for whatever disease you might have—not in a mouse, but in a mini-you. “This will enable a new era of personalized medicine,” says Ali Khademhosseini, a bioengineer at Harvard’s Wyss Institute who has been working on both mini-organs and biochips for the last decade.
In a paper that will be published later this month, Khademhosseini’s team created a series of chips connecting liver organoids and cancer cells with loops of tiny tubes. They pumped an anticancer drug through the system, tracking whether it killed the tumor cells and whether the liver cells could survive the toxic onslaught. That way, they could optimize a drug dosage that maxed cancer-killing power while keeping the liver out of harm’s way.
I can’t help wondering if these body-less mouse brains are sentient on some level, or if they could be. Do they have a natural life span, or can they regenerate and repair themselves indefinitely? Could someone create a human consciousness this way? If so, could it survive and develop in the absence of a body? Could it be plugged into a simulation so it thought it had a body? Could it be plugged into a spacecraft or a submarine and sent out to explore?