Thomas Hartung and David Pamies, “Mini Brain,” 2016, Video, model and microscope, Dimensions variable. Shanghai Himalayas Museum installation view, 2017


Shanghai Project Chapter 2 reflects on human beings’ continuous efforts to push beyond the limitations that have led us to where we stand now. “Mini Brains,” developed at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, are tiny balls of cells that could be used to study various types
of pharmaceuticals and diseases. The brains are 350 micrometers in diameter, which is about the size of the eye of a housefly. Researchers take a small piece of skin and then transform it into stem cells, without using fetal tissue. Scientists then induce these stem cells to reproduce and become nerve cells. Mini-brains can be created using the cells of any person.

The significance of these brains is that they could eliminate the use of hundreds of thousands of lab rats. They are not only cheaper and easier to maintain than rats, but they also provide us with a more accurate understanding of the human nervous system. Scientists around the world have been experimenting with mini-brains, but Thomas Hartung and David Parmies’ team have actually created an easily reproducible brain organoid or a three-dimensional cluster of cells that mimics some of the characteristics of an organ. Although rodent models have been useful, mini-brains should be naturally superior considering they are derived from human cells. Hartung and Pamies believe that mini-brains will provide insight into autism, multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s, and many other diseases.

Mini brains take about 10 weeks to cultivate and resemble the brains of developing fetuses; meaning that the cells have begun to form different types of neurons, but distinct brain structures have yet to emerge. The balls of cells are immersed in a perpetually swirling liquid, causing them to form a sphere. In Seeds of Time, “Mini Brain” will be presented on-site, as well as extensively described through renderings and interviews.

Thomas Hartung, MD PhD, is professor at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, US, and University of Konstanz, Germany. His interest is in how to find drugs and dangerous substances with modern technologies instead of animal tests. Better cell cultures, which mimic organs, are one of these approaches, which led his group to develop a human mini-brain from stem cells. A special focus of his work is about quality assurance and validation in science. He has published more than 500 scientific articles.