Lab-grown mini-organs help model disease, test new drugs

To the naked eye, the little globs of cells are undifferentiated masses, smaller than sesame seeds. Put them under a microscope, though, and these lab-grown miniature organs show striking complexity: the tiny tubules of a kidney, the delicate folds of cerebral cortex, or a mucousy layer of intestinal lining. Now—after nearly a decade of figuring out how to make cells grow, organize, and specialize into 3D structures similar to human tissues, scientists have created a veritable zoo of “organoids,” including livers, pancreases, stomachs, hearts, kidneys, and even mammary and salivary glands. In a special issue published today in the journal Development, researchers in this young field describe what organoid research has achieved so far and report a handful of new advances. Here’s a crash course on these alluring—but imperfect—little models.

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