April 6 (UPI) -- Scientists have developed a new 3D-printed bioreactor, allowing researchers to observe tiny brains and other organoids as they grow.
The novel bioreactor -- featured in a new paper, published Tuesday in the journal Biomicrofluidics -- could help medical researchers develop new disease therapies and test experimental drugs.
Over the last decades, scientists have gotten very good at culturing different types of human tissue and organoids, a miniaturized and simplified version of an organ, in the lab.
But challenges remain, and scientists are still trying to understand exactly how stem cells differentiate themselves into distinct tissue cells.
Currently, scientists observe growing organoids through glass-bottomed plates positioned beneath a microscope. These plates are expensive and only work with certain types of microscopes -- in addition to other limitations.
"They do not allow for the flow or replenishment of nutrient medium to the growing tissue. We therefore wanted to design a versatile system that would allow imaging of organoid directly in their culture chamber," study co-author Chloe Delepine, postdoctoral researcher at MIT, told UPI in an email.
"And we wanted the culture chamber to be optimally designed for 3D organoids and to provide the ideal growing environment in a fully enclosed system, and an automatized replenishment of culture media," said Delepine, a postdoctoral researcher at MIT.
To develop a more versatile device for growing and observing organoids, scientists utilized 3D printing, a cheaper and scalable production method.
Scientists created a design with viewing wells, where organoids can develop, as well as microfluidic channels, which supply the growing organoid with the nutrient medium.
The device, a kind of see-through chip, is compatible with a variety of imaging technologies.
"The manufacturing process of the chip with 3D printing is very straightforward and low cost," said Delepine.
In lab tests, the new device was able to sustain the development of brain organoids derived from human cells for seven days.
Over the course of the week-long experiment, scientists successfully imaged the miniaturized brain. The observations revealed the organization of brain cells around a cavity or ventricle that resembled a tiny neocortex.
Scientists suggest the ability to provide organoids with a constant supply of nutrient medium allows them to maintain a more natural environment for tissue growth and reduce the amount of cell death.
"This new technology provides an optimal device for live imaging of organoid growth. Observing organoid growth will provide key insights into the dynamics of organ development -- not only a snapshot of how the organ is organized at different stages but a continuous tracking of its self-organizing cells," Delepine said.
"Moreover our microfluidic device, by allowing perfusion of molecules or drugs and observation of the consequences in real time, is optimal for use in drug discovery," Delepine said.
Scientists are currently working on growing multiple organoids in a single chip, as well as tweaking the technology to integrate the device with other types of instruments.