Home Cellular science 22-year-old grows mini-brains in petri dishes to fight brain cancer

22-year-old grows mini-brains in petri dishes to fight brain cancer

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Freya Weth uses brain tumor tissue samples donated by Wellington cancer patients and observes how common drugs affect tumor growth.  This image from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology captures what Weth does in a lab in Wellington.

MIT/provided

Freya Weth uses brain tumor tissue samples donated by Wellington cancer patients and observes how common drugs affect tumor growth. This image from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology captures what Weth does in a lab in Wellington.

In a lab in Newtown, Wellington, 22-year-old Freya Weth shoots blood pressure medication and viagra at human brain tissue.

“If we could use them to treat cancer, that would be amazing,” Weth said.

Weth, from Palmerston North, is growing ‘mini-brains’ from donated tissue from patients being treated for brain cancer at Wellington Hospital and testing them against drugs commonly found in medicine cabinets.

The aim is to see how the drugs affect the growth of tumor tissue, building on existing research at the Gillies McIndoe Research Institute led by Dr Swee Tan, which found that beta-blockers could be used to cause the “self-destruction” of tumors without the need for invasive procedures.

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Beta-blockers are common and affordable medications used to lower blood pressure. That’s traditionally what Viagra was made to do, Weth said, “so it had this weird side effect.”

“These drugs have already been tested for efficacy and safety in humans, so we know they are good.”

She aimed to use samples from 12 brains over the three years of research – and she was always looking for a few more donations.

“We take a bunch of different drug cocktails and combinations and dosages and test and see how the cells react, whether they live and die and also how the cellular pathways are affected by these different treatments,” Weth said.

Freya Weth, 22, is testing 'mini-brains' to see how they respond to different cancer treatments.

KEVIN STENT

Freya Weth, 22, is testing ‘mini-brains’ to see how they respond to different cancer treatments.

Weth’s method allows the Institute to test more drugs in a shorter time frame, said the research institute’s chief scientist, Dr Clint Gray.

“Freya’s work will inform and support future clinical trial work targeting cancerous tumors by repurposing low-cost, off-patent, and safe oral drugs.

His doctoral work was a discovery project, Gray said “so we’re looking at anything and everything.”

Brain cells form a complex tissue, complete with nerve structures (red) and blood vessels (green).  Fair Use Image

Morgridge Institute for Research/Supplied

Brain cells form a complex tissue, complete with nerve structures (red) and blood vessels (green). Fair Use Image

The method – the growth of these mini-brains or organoids – means that what Weth sees in the lab will mirror what would happen in people.

The research institute is developing a research platform that combines organoid technology with genome engineering. Gray said the platform would help develop models to study human cancer and drug discovery through drug repurposing.

Weth, who is working on a doctorate, was awarded the three-year Graham Langridge Fellowship worth $150,000 for research, named after an original institute board member who died of a prostate cancer ten years ago.

On Monday, Weth met Graham Langridge’s widow, Judith, and their children Rose and Tom, when they visited the research institute to hear about the research.

Weth expected to have preliminary results of the work next year, with final results in 2025.