Testing medical technologies, techniques, and treatments on humans present moral, ethical, and legal issues, but without clinical proof, new tech won’t make it out of the development stage. In 2017, we wrote about a Nordis and University of Washington study of 3D organ-on-chip models of human liver and kidney that showed organ-organ interactions responding to toxic chemicals.

New Orleans-based AxoSim recently announced it has an exclusive license to use John Hopkins University‘s Mini-Brain intellectual property to build functional models of the human brain. These will speed up research on drugs for central nervous system diseases such as Alzheimer’s, ALS, and multiple sclerosis. Mini-Brain technology creates accurate, predictive human brain models that replace animal testing. Animal testing often doesn’t produce accurate results because the human central nervous system is very different and more complex.

Mini-Brain science uses human donor skin cells to create a “3D brain microphysiological system.” The technology works by inducing pluripotency in the cells. “Pluripotent” cells — such as those in a human embryo — have a full set of human cell potentials; in other words, they can develop into any of the cell types that make up the human body.

Using the Mini-Brain technology with its own Nerve-on-a-Chip platform, AxoSim “grows” cell structure that functions like the human brain. The resultant material can then be tested with new drugs, for example, to speed up pharmaceutical research and development.

If this approach to measuring the effects of drugs sounds edgy, frankly it is. AxoSim uses the Mini-Brain to create living human tissue from material that was originally part of a live human. The rapid growth of Alzheimer’s Disease, projected to involve 13.8 million Americans by 2050, must be on the table in conversations about the rightness or wrongness of experimenting with human tissue. If there are no alternative means to effectively test pharmaceuticals that could treat, mitigate, or even prevent Alzheimer’s, that cost must be weighed against human tissue testing separate from living humans. They’ve got my vote in favor of tissue testing, but this is a debate that is far from settled at this point.