The Year of the Organoid

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The brain-in-a-jar is one of science fiction’s creepier ideas. It is a safe prediction that 2016 will not see such literally disembodied people become reality. What it will see, though, is the blossoming of a technology that lets scientists grow things resembling brains—and also livers, kidneys, intestines and many other body parts—in glass vessels in laboratories.

Over the course of 2016 these simulacra, known as organoids, will begin to enter routine medical use as ways of testing drugs. They will also, by illuminating the way real organs grow, cast light on diseases caused during embryonic development. Eventually, though probably not in 2016, some will even be made good enough to be transplanted into people, to replace diseased or failing natural organs.

Hans Clevers, of the Hubrecht Institute in the Netherlands, has grown “intestinoids” that will permit two novel sorts of drug testing. These will start being rolled out in earnest in 2016. One is for cystic fibrosis, a disease that gums up both the lungs and the intestines, eventually killing the patient. The other is for bowel cancer.

Organoids are grown from stem cells similar to those found in embryos, though they are actually obtained either from existing organs, or by treating skin cells with certain biochemicals to persuade them to turn into stem cells. Organoids thus created have the genetic characteristics of the people they are taken from, and so respond to drugs as would the corresponding organ of the person in question.

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