Clinical trials in a dish?

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A packed room at the 24th International Symposium on ALS/MND was given a fascinating whistle stop tour covering stem cells, robots and cellular garbage clearing, by Dr Steve Finkbeiner of the University of California, as well as a glimpse into the future of developing ‘disease in a dish’ models of MND.

Dr Finkbeiner outlined how his lab is attempting to conduct “clinical trials in a dish” by generating huge numbers of cultured neurons cells for automated ‘high throughput analysis’ of their health and death. As he says, “we’re basically trying to develop a comprehensive physical examination for nerve cells”.

Robotics in MND

The object of this work is of course not only to improve our understanding of how nerve cells function and misfunction, but principally to screen large numbers of potentially protective compounds. To do this, he has developed a sophisticated and sensitive robot-based system that can assess the individual state of health of thousands of neurons in culture over the period of weeks, or even months! A great thing about robots is that they work 24/7 – and this robot even has its own Twitter account to keep the investigators updated on its progress.

Watch the robots in action here:


Steve Finkbeiner at this year's symposium in Milan
Steve Finkbeiner at this year’s symposium in Milan

Like his robots, Dr Finkbeiner is a busy guy, as this technology has exciting implications for the whole spectrum of neurodegerenative diseases, including Parkinson’s disease and Huntington’s disease, which he is also working on. But it was encouraging to see how extensively the MND research community is collaborating with him – including our own MND Association funded researchers Siddarthan Chandran and Chris Shaw.

The monitoring and analysis of these cells produces massive amounts of data, which requires huge computing power, so he has hooked up with Google, who have assigned a team of software engineers (rumour has it from their ‘secret’ GoogleX lab) to assist with the computational effort.

Just like no two MND patients are exactly the same, so Dr Finkbeiner thinks that we need to treat cells in the dish in a similar fashion, treating each as individuals, but hopefully also stratifying them into selective groups defined by common cellular functions, in the same way that patients may be stratified (eg limb onset vs bulbar onset) in a clinical trial.

Of course, these new technologies still need some ironing out, but we saw an exciting glimpse of things to come….

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