The Sunday Times - Britain
January 16, 2005
First brain cells grown in lab
Jonathan Leake, Science Editor
SCIENTISTS have successfully grown human brain cells in the laboratory
for the first time and used them to repair the damaged brains of
The breakthrough brings new hope in the search for therapies not only
for accident victims but also for those suffering the effects of
strokes, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and a range of other degenerative
The researchers emphasise the research is experimental, but it suggests
there may one day be hope for spinal injury victims such as the late
Christopher Reeve, the Superman star paralysed in a riding accident who
died last year. In the initial experiments a man given the cultured
brain cells apparently regained the ability to walk.
The research was carried out in China by Professor Zhu Jianhong of
Fudan University hospital, who will announce the results of his work in
London later this month.
“This is a world first,” said Professor Stephen Minger, director of the
stem cell biology laboratory at the Wolfson Centre for age-related
diseases at King’s College London. He has already been to Shanghai to
examine the methods used by Zhu and to see the eight patients he has
“Many people have been trying to grow brain cells in the laboratory,
but nobody has succeeded. If the initial results prove accurate, then
this has huge implications for new treatments,” said Minger.
Scientists have long recognised that if they can find a way to grow
neurones, the cells that comprise the functional parts of the brain and
spine, then they will be able to treat a wide range of currently
That is because in adult humans such cells have almost no ability to
divide, grow and replace themselves as they die off through disease,
injury or old age. By contrast, most other tissues, such as skin or
muscle, can repair and rebuild themselves, so offsetting the ravages of
time and disease.
After the age of 25 a typical adult loses millions of neurones a week,
a process that can be accelerated in later years by diseases such as
Alzheimer’s, leading to loss of cognitive skills and eventually the
destruction of the personality.
Scientists have, however, always wondered if they could find a way to
kick-start neurones so that they regain the ability to divide, grow and
The discovery of stem cells in the 1990s prompted new hope. Stem cells
are primitive cells that have the potential to divide and grow into
almost any kind of specialised cell. In adults there are different stem
cells for most types of tissue, including the brain.
However, all previous attempts to use these to grow brain cells have
failed. This is partly because of the difficulty of obtaining fresh
brain cells to work on, meaning many groups have had to use samples
from dead bodies.
Zhu is, however, understood to have used a different and much simpler
method. He is said to have obtained his brain samples from the accident
and emergency department of Hua Shan hospital where he works and which
treats thousands of people with head and brain injuries each year.
A scientific report to the conference describes how he realised the
potential of such material when he treated a patient who had been
stabbed in the eye with a chopstick.
When the stick was removed it was covered in brain material, which Zhu
was able to grow in a culture medium.
In the West such an approach would be hard to attempt because of the
welter of ethical regulations that surround research on samples taken
from living people. In China such rules are much looser. Zhu
experimented with a range of culture mediums and growth factors —
hormones that encourage cells to divide and grow — and found his
approach had worked.
Two months later he had grown several million cells that he
transplanted into a patient with a serious head injury. This was done
by drilling tiny holes into the skull and placing several clumps of
cells around the site of the injury.
The report, written by Minger on Zhu’s behalf, said subsequent brain
scans showed the cells had grown further and integrated with the
patient’s surviving brain cells to help them recover abilities lost
through the injury.
Dr Peter Mountford, chief executive of Stem Cell Sciences, a leading
British company in such research, said the breakthrough was
outstanding. “What stands out is the simple fact they are actually
undertaking clinical trials while we here in Britain are just beginning
to think about it.”
Copyright 2005 Times Newspapers Ltd.