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‘Brain in a dish’ offers hope for dementia treatment


A new research centre in Sydney is hoping to have dementia treatments in clinical trials within five years, thanks to the development of “artificial brains” that can test early versions of drugs.

Launched in May, the Macquarie University Dementia Research Centre brings together a team of leading scientists from Australia and overseas. They each bring data retrieved from their own research, which together they hope to translate into therapies for people living with the brain disease.

Leader of the new centre Professor Lars Ittner has spent 15 years unraveling the mysteries of dementia. He now believes his goal of developing effective drug therapies to slow progression of – and hopefully cure – the disease, is finally within reach thanks to his new team.

“I’m super-hyped about getting the centre off the ground. It’s a huge environment where we have so much expertise together and it’s really within our grasp that we can translate basic science into something that helps people,” he says. “We really need this.”

Understanding how dementia works

The 40 members of the new team are already immersing themselves in their mammoth task.

“It’s crucial you understand how a disease works before you try and develop treatments,” says Prof Ittner, who previously worked as a researcher at the University of NSW.

“Over the past two decades we have identified new mechanisms that contradict the disease. But we have a long road ahead to develop these into therapies.”

Professor Lars Ittner (Jesse Taylor/Macquarie University)

The testing will be done on 3D brains in a cellular culture model developed by Prof Ittner’s team. Essentially, brains in a dish.

Not living brains, Prof Ittner is quick to add – rather cell cultures of tissues from donor organisms, grown together to create an artificial brain-like network.

“The 3D model accelerates our ability to see the effects of a new drug or therapy, and the dish provides easy visibility,” he says. “It’s a new way to test early versions of drugs to see what impact they have on the disease.”

The team has come up with the testing concept themselves but Prof Ittner is reluctant to claim their research as a world-first. “Competition in our field is fierce,” he says. “And that’s really good.”

Long road ahead

It will be a fair few years before his research translates into treatment, he adds. And because dementia is a multi-faceted condition, any therapies are likely to involve a combination of drugs that treat different aspects of the disease.

After a few years of pre-clinical research and drug development, Prof Ittner hopes the centre will be at a stage where it can work with patients on clinical trials.

“We have a lot of experiments in the pipeline already and we’re expecting to see one or hopefully more candidates ready for clinical trials within five years,” he says.

“Then it’s probably another three to five years before we see a clinical trial translating to a treatment.”

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