A high school kid just built a machine to grow ‘mini brains’ that could aid Zika research

In just a few months, a high school student built an innovative device that may help unlock the secrets of how the Zika virus compromises the development of fetal forebrains. Christopher Hadiono almost didn’t get the chance to spend the 2013 summer session at Johns Hopkins University where he developed the concept, according to a report publish by Spectrum. But consecutive emails, a letter, and a phone call convinced Professor of Neurology Hongjun Song of the teen’s commitment. 

Once admitted to help Song at his lab, Hadiono spent that summer mastering a 3D printing program, building a contraption that can grow hundreds of mini-brains, and opening the door for neuroscientists to peak inside the degenerative mechanisms of a virus that’s infected an estimated 1.5 million people in Brazil alone. Based on research supported by Hadiono’s device, Song and his team have published a paper in the journal Cell, in which they show that the Zika virus interferes with fetal forebrain development by neutralizing neural stem cells and thinning brain structures. 

Mini-brains have existed for around five years now, but machines which function like mini-bioreactors are needed to create and sustain them — and those machines can be relatively big and prohibitively expensive. Hadiono’s device is different. Costing just $400, his machine is capable of accommodating more than twice as many mini-brains as the existing $2,000 alternatives.

And Hariono’s device is compact, enabling researchers to run multiple machines side by side and subject mini-brains to nearly twice as many different experiments. “We did not think that even a biotechnology graduate student could make this into a reality,” Song told Spectrum.

When it comes to studying brains, mini-brains offer researchers a tiny, manageable imitation of the real thing. Since these aren’t actual brains, researchers can experiment in ways that would otherwise compromise medical safety and ethical standards. There isn’t yet broad consensus that machines like Hadiono’s can replace traditional bioreactors, but more testing may result in their becoming generally accepted alternatives.