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Organoids: mini organs in a dish for disease research and new cures

Producing miniature versions of organs in a dish may sound like science-fiction, but thanks to advances in stem cell technology and bioengineering scientists are now able to artificially grow a mass of cells into organoids with similar properties to organs. Organoids represent cells grown in specific three-dimensional (3D) environments, creating mini, simplified organs that retain some physiological function. They are derived from one or a few cells, from a tissue, embryonic stem cells or induced pluripotent stem cells, which can self-organize in three-dimensional cultures.

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Following the observation that cells do not behave in 2D cultures as they do in vivo, 3D cultures of organoids have emerged as promising model systems for studying tissue development and generating new therapies. With recent technological breakthroughs, 3D culture models have come to represent a more physiologically relevant approximation of the in vivo environment. Hence, researchers in the fields of the physical sciences and engineering are seeking to improve the 3D culture conditions to grow mini organs in a dish. Organoids are increasing in complexity as researchers begin probing more deeply the mechanisms behind stem cell lineage and differentiation. Models have now been grown for many organs, including brain, liver, kidney, breast, retina, and organs of the gastrointestinal tract, among others. They have potential use in infection models and toxicity screening, and to test pharmaceutical molecules, personalised medicine and regenerative medicine / organ replacement.

Mini organs to model disease

This CORDIS Results Pack presents the first results from EU/ERC funded research in the organoid field. It sheds light on five projects and their scientific advances in organoid technology and how they can be used as in vivo-like models. Transferring results from animal models to humans is a major bottleneck in pharmaceutical research and this is especially true for brain disorders like neurogenerative and developmental diseases. The Mini Brains project therefore generated brain organoids to study the mechanisms of various neurological disorders and discover novel drugs to treat them. TOXANOID proved that their technology can outperform current in vitro systems and replace a significant portion of animal-based toxicology studies. The team successfully developed organoid systems for several organs including small intestine, colon and liver.

Technologies for 3D in vitro organoids

ColonCan developed novel ex vivo three-dimensional organoid cultures that replicate genetic events in colorectal cancer (CRC), the second most common cause of cancer-related deaths, and used them to test novel therapeutics. COMIET created a new cell culture platform for epithelial tissues to advance the in vitro modelling of diseases, preclinical screening for drug efficacy and toxicity, as well as the understanding of organ development. CLOC project produced liver organoids in vitro using hepatocytes cultured on 3D scaffolds as novel models for studying liver development and disease, and potential treatment of inherited cholestic disorders.