Researchers use 3D brain model to treat disease

Biology professor Joel Pachter and his collaborator, Dr. Min Tang-Schomer, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Connecticut Children's Medical Center, are working on a 3D vascular brain model to assess the effects of drugs on the brains and diagnose diseases. (Flickr/AJC ajcann.wordpress.com)

Many diseases such as HIV, Alzheimer’s and brain tumors can be hard to treat, but researchers at the University of Connecticut are working on creating a 3D vascular brain model to assess the efficiency of drugs to treat brain tumors.

Other models for treatment are based off of a two dimensional model generated by growing isolated brain cells in a simple dish or 3D without a vascular supply, biology professor Joel Pachter said.

“An objective of my collaborator, Dr. Min Tang-Schomer, assistant professor of pediatrics at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center/UCHC and a bioengineer, and mine will be to ‘vascularize’ the 3D brain model, by supplying it with its own circulatory system.  This will enable the model, comprised of the tumor cells and surrounding brain cells, to closely mimic the arrangement in the brain and be sustainable for long periods of time,” Pachter said.

Pachter said the 3D model will be used to evaluate drug transport into the brain across the blood-brain barrier (BBB). The BBB protects the brain from toxic substances, but often restricts the passage of “helpful” drugs to the brain as well.

Additionally, Tang- Schomer said that drug studies for the brain are challenging due to the fact that the brain is the most complex organ in the human body and one of the least accessible because of the BBB.

“For example, HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, hides in certain brain cells. While most of the current medications are effective at reducing the HIV present in the blood, many cannot effectively penetrate the BBB,” Pachter said. “A 3D vascularized brain model will allow us to better study how drugs and other therapeutics can be modified to more effectively penetrate the BBB and target cells in the brain.”

The problem with 2D models, Pachter said, is that they do not encompass the complex interactions between the various cells that take place in the brain. The avascular models lack blood supply and they are not sustainable once cells are removed from the brain.

“This is exciting since with this (3D) model, we could finally perfuse drugs in the same manner as if injecting drugs to the body and monitor tissue response in real-time,” Tang- Schomer said.

Live animals have also been used in studies like this, Pachter said, but they are not as effective since physiology and pathophysiology of animals are not necessarily the same as in humans. Thus, the affects in animals may not exactly replicate what would happen with humans.

“From an ethical perspective, less reliance on animal models means less animal usage and suffering,” Pachter said. 

Pachter said that the 3D human, vascularized brain will open many possibilities to study drug delivery for all sorts of conditions. 

“With specific respect to tumors, as these can vary from patient to patient, the ability to generate patient-specific 3D brain models can potentially aid in the development of personalized medicine to treat brain tumors,” Pachter said.

Pachter said, the 3D model will allow Pachter and Tang-Schomer to better study cerebrovascular mechanisms in Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, white matter disease, stroke and others. It will even be helpful for studying inflammatory responses of the brain in conditions like multiple sclerosis.

“It is a great time to team up an engineer, a basic scientist and clinicians to do innovative science that could make a major impact for patient care in future,” Tang-Schomer said.


Emma Krueger is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at emma.krueger@uconn.edu.