‘Scientists grow human brain in a lab’–The science reality behind the headlines

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“Scientists grow almost fully formed human brain in a lab for the first time,” ran a headline last year in the UK’s The Independent. Other news outlets followed up along similar lines, breathlessly reporting what seemed to be a groundbreaking discovery in neuroscience research.

The news came on the heels of an announcement by two Ohio State University researchers, Rene Anand and Susan McKay, at the Military Health System Research Symposium, a small conference. Using pluripotent stem cells that can be converted to any cell type in the body, the researchers announced that they had created a brain that had matured to the equivalent to that of a five week old fetus and contained ’99 percent’ of the genes present in the human fetal brain.

Going further the Anand and McKay indicated that they had already started creating brain models of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, something that if true would undoubtedly be a great leap forward in studying these diseases, primarily because animal models have proven to not necessarily reflect the human brain all that well. The press release had little bit of narrative to Anand’s research as well, indicating that he had taken “a chance with a shoestring budget compared to other researchers doing similar projects” and in four years ” built himself a replica of the human brain,” painting Anand as a scientist who had taken a huge risk and trumped the odds.

Similar results regarding brain organoids had already been reported in the news in 2013 on the basis of research published in the leading research journal Nature. In this case however, the research was not published or peer-reviewed. Rather, the announcement was made on the basis of a poster which is usually intended to present preliminary evidence at conferences. Most news reports therefore had little to rely on except the press release, and the poster if the reporter wanted to obtain a copy.

Given the extraordinary nature of the claims however, it is worth looking at whether it merited the attention.

It’s hard to get a clear picture of either the validity of the results or the novelty of the findings beyond what was reported in 2013. Some experts I reached out to refused to comment on results that weren’t published. One noted that the fact that the findings were announced at a small symposium that most researchers in the field wouldn’t be aware of and the extraordinary claims on the basis of data that had not been peer reviewed raised some red flags.

Katie Palmer, a reporter at Wired magazine, had a similar experience when finding out whether the study by Anand was indeed groundbreaking.

Several stem cell researchers WIRED contacted, including one who saw the poster at the meeting, declined to comment on the work. “Without showing any additional data,” wrote Kristin Brennand, a stem cell researcher at Icahn School of Medicine in an email, “it’s really impossible to say.”

William Lowry, an associate professor at the University of California Los Angeles and a member of UCLA’s Broad Stem Cell Research Center said the finding wasn’t really novel, noting that “the data presented does not appear to show anything beyond what was already described in [the 2013 Nature paper] or Murugama et al in 2015.” The 2015 report he is referring to is a study by Japanese researchers who successfully goaded stem cells into three-dimensional organoids that had different neuronal cell types and formed circuits like in the human brain.

Importantly in this report, the authors note a financial incentive to promote the results, even if preliminary. Anand, the lead investigator stated in the press release that they are hoping to have more funding from agencies such as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and have also set up a company, NeurXstem to commercialize the platform, applying for funds from the federal Small Business Technology Transfer in the process.

Anand wrote to Palmer in an email as well that this is exactly what he was hoping the media attention would do

“We are really poor now, poorer that you can ever imagine for what we have done,” Anand wrote in an email. “We hope reports like yours get us the resources to move forward.”

Scientists lobbying for more funding is nothing new. And given the extremely competitive environment promoting your work might just bring in more money from agencies or even investors looking for the next big thing in science.

The news media however, was extremely quick to spread the word around with little fact checking. The press release was published on the evening of August 18th and by the afternoon of the next day many major outlets carried the story. The one critical comment included in one of the first pieces to appear about the study in The Guardian was being referred to everywhere, almost as an afterthought.

However, as Palmer points out in Wired, media has a bigger responsibility in these cases

Even if researchers have good reason to present their preliminary data at conference, that doesn’t mean press offices and media outlets should help spread the word. (Hypocrisy noted.) Many outlets covered the maybe-brain, and even though most of those stories waved a big fat “non-peer reviewed” disclaimer, the information is still out there.

Anand and McKay’s work could indeed be the next big thing. But we just don’t know it yet and until we do it shouldn’t be hailed as such.

Arvind Suresh is a science media liaison at the Genetic Expert News Service. He is also a science communicator and a former laboratory biologist. Follow him @suresh_arvind.